Olympic athletes who stick around too long were once derided as “pipeline-blockers.” Conventional sports wisdom held that the careers of top athletes followed the four-year Olympiad cycle. With luck, mostly by accident of birth year, you just might be able to stay close to a podium position for two sets of Games. But there was always someone better and younger and more deserving on the way up.
So what happened? As is often the case when old thinking in sports yields to enlightened thought, it was changes away from the field of play that supplied a new model. The old Olympic ideals were tied to a 19th-century construct of gentlemanly amateurism. But outside a communist state it was difficult to sustain a career in unpaid competition – athletes who wanted to earn a living and support a family after university had to find a new line of work. Or if they chose to stay in sport, they had to fit in their training around a 9-to-5 job, which made it almost impossible to find the recovery periods elite bodies demand.
That mentality gradually broke down between the 1970s and 1990s. Elite competitors could win prize money, make endorsement deals and receive a government stipend. Because they could afford to stay in the game, they had an incentive to get better at their craft.
And if primitive lessons of science postulated that the body begins declining in the 20s, as athletic careers have gained longevity, our understanding of human potential has become more sophisticated and expansive.
The other barrier to a long career, for example, was once the constant threat of injury from overtraining. But the professionalization of Olympic sports such as track and field have brought a revolution in equipment and sports medicine that has reduced injuries, particularly injuries of overuse and burnout. One spinoff of this change is a kind of democratization of high-end physical activity, something that bonds the elite with the rest of us in shared wisdom and experience.
“Every runners shop and track club now disseminates the most up-to-date information on training, nutrition, hydration,” says Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian who teaches the social history of sport at University of Toronto. “In step with what’s going on at the elite level, there’s been an explosion in the number of older people who are running seriously.”
With this new, broader social understanding that an athletic career can be long-lasting and precious, the kind of investment that can pay continued dividends, training has become less brutal and more scientific – and specific to the goals of the competitor rather than a generic form of punishment.
“A lot of the improvements we’ve seen in older athletes has been an understanding that rest is a part of training,” says Carl Foster, who directs the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “Thirty years ago, we didn’t know that. We thought you should just work harder.”
Older athletes are more likely to flourish in a system where rest and recovery are valued. But the old prejudice still rears its head. At 27, Michael Phelps is young in most ways, but the soon-to-be four-time Olympian is a grizzled veteran in swimming terms, and he feels like he has earned the right to train with a reduced workload. If he has lasted this long in an unrelenting sport, it’s because he has figured out a way to resist the burnout that results from overly repetitive training and domineering coaching.
But recently he was called out by a younger teammate for not working hard enough. Mr. Phelps is on track to win medals in London, yet somehow he is making it look too easy – something every veteran athlete learns to do as a way of maximizing diminishing resources or simply exploiting the efficiencies of experience.
“Buried deep within the soul of sports is this Puritan ethic, that you have to work hard,” Prof. Foster says. “But Phelps over time has found a solution that works for him, and he’s smart enough to know when he needs to rest. He’s winning all the events he enters, so what more should he do?”
Rest is for the weak, the young may say, simply because they can. Their bodies are able to handle the kind of high-intensity training that breaks down both the muscles and the will of the old. But what has become clearer as we see more examples of aging Olympic athletes is that one size of training does not fit all. The motto of Dara Torres, the speedy swimmer who won three silver medals in Beijing at 41 and almost made the U.S. team for London at 45: “Don’t work out harder, work out smarter.”