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Forever young: Why old age is no barrier for the Master Athletes

Forever young: Why old age is no barrier for the Master Athletes Susana Girón
03 Aug
While all eyes are on the world’s best athletes in Rio this summer, Geographical looks at the equally competitive, if slightly older, veterans still competing well into their old age

The slap of running shoes on asphalt. The grunts of extreme physical exertion. The roars of the crowd and the piped music of national anthems. To all extents and purposes, the 2015 World Masters Athletics Championships in Lyon, France was a sporting tournament like any other. Sprints, marathons, swimming, long jumps, high jumps, pole vaults, shot puts, javelins, winners, losers, cheers and adulation. 6,000 athletes performing for pride and glory.

Except the times are slightly slower than at regular athletics meets. The grunts and groans a little more pronounced. The aches and pains felt once the adrenaline wears off requiring slightly longer to recover from. Hardly surprising as the Masters Athletics is open to competitors aged 35 and above, and have seen competitors as old as 105-years-old taking part.

Since 1975, athletes considered too old to compete with the world’s best have gathered for the World Masters Games (unofficial events had been taking place since the mid-1960s), proving that age is no barrier when it comes to possessing a competitive spirit. The introduction of age-graded tables, and with each event split over five-year age groups, means that everyone competes at an even level, be they 35, 55 or 95 years of age.

Over the years, the popularity of the event has grown, from some 5,500 athletes in the 1989 Austria Games, to a peak of 28,676 competitors taking part in the 2009 Sydney tournament (more than double the number of athletes that competed in the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000). Masters Athletics has also grown beyond just the global Games event to include European and Asian championships, a ‘Senior’ Olympics and the World Masters Athletics Championships.

Photojournalist Susana Girón spent two years following some of the best of Europe’s athletes to various meets – Spain’s athletes in particular – visually documenting the passion for competition that still burns fiercely within them. At the last European Championship in Ancona, Italy, at the end of March this year, Spain had 93 septuagenarian athletes, 30 in the over-80s category, three over the age of 90, and one in the over-95 section – Valentin Huch of Barcelona, who, at a sprightly 97-years-old, took a bronze medal in the long jump, silver medals in the triple jump, discus and shot put, and a gold medal in the hammer throw.

‘Sport in the elderly is not simply an issue of health,’ says Girón. ‘It is said that once you become older, you stop dreaming and become less passionate about things. The bodies of these athletes might dwindle with each year, but the passion with which they live and face the events remains stronger than ever, especially as they become aware that every championship might be their last. Living with passion means to remain forever young.’

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