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Olympians Simon Whitfield, left, and Reid Coolsaet, training this week in Oakville, Ont., are redefining what it means to be ‘Olympic’ material. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Olympians Simon Whitfield, left, and Reid Coolsaet, training this week in Oakville, Ont., are redefining what it means to be ‘Olympic’ material. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

London 2012

The Olympic Games aren’t just for the young Add to ...

Faster, higher, stronger – and older?

It’s not supposed to work this way. Both philosophers and physiologists treat aging as a trade-off between mind and body, where the wisdom that comes with experience is attained at the cost of running slower, jumping lower, if we jump at all, and steering clear of situations where strength is all that matters.

The traditional Olympic values are not kind to the old, nor are they meant to be. “I call upon the youth of the world to assemble four years from now in London,” International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said at the closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Games, and the traditional message of farewell could not be more obvious: Sport at the highest and hardest level is for the young.

But Olympians know better. Drawing on sport science that prizes the benefits of experience, enlightened training techniques that favour quality of work over quantity, a financial-support system unknown to their hard-up predecessors and a media environment that values familiar faces for their brand power and ratings potential, athletes are increasingly finding ways to grow old in their games.

Canada’s team at London 2012 is filled with overachieving thirtysomethings, led by the 37-year-old flag-bearer and triathlete Simon Whitfield, who returns for his fourth Olympics, a feat that would have been highly unlikely even a generation ago. Then there’s 39-year-old Clara Hughes, who as a speed skater carried the flag at the 2010 Games in Vancouver and now becomes the role model for mature multitaskers by competing as a cyclist in London – a full 16 years after she won two bronze medals in Atlanta.

And let’s not forget 39-year-old Daniel Nestor, the top-ranked doubles tennis player who is making his fifth appearance at the Olympics, having won gold at Sydney in 2000. Like many veteran athletes, he has found continued success in a sport where the required skills are enhanced by the passage of time – teamwork, communication and intuitive decision-making on the crowded doubles court do not come naturally, they have to be learned.

“We now realize that you have to be in a sport longer in order to reach a high level,” says Volker Nolte, a rowing coach and professor of kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario. “All sports are about technique, and the difference between first place and seventh at the Olympics lies in the fine details.”

If all sports are about technique and prolonged attention to detail is the difference-maker, then age and experience become a distinct advantage.

“There’s a wisdom that comes from figuring out the hard things time and time again,” says orthopedic surgeon Vonda Wright, author of Fitness After 40. “You’ve been doing a sport so long that you don’t have to think about it, the muscle memory is there. Your physical ability may be slightly decreased from when you were 20, but you’ve got a sports acumen that only comes from aging.”

Mr. Whitfield is not shy about admitting the inevitable truth of time. “I’m definitely older,” the trialthlete says between a morning of road running in the company of two Olympic marathoners and a late-afternoon bike ride where he intends to listen to the audio-book reading of Edward Rutherfurd’s historical novel Sarum. “That’s aging for you – a 21-year-old would probably be listening to some head-bashing heavy metal.”

Experience has taught him a similar kind of refined calmness in his sport. Every elite athlete is fiercely competitive and has to be able to find an intensity to win, “to want it,” as they say.

“But as you get older,” Mr. Whitfield says, “your desire to go out and conquer changes. It becomes more logical, more thought-driven, more a matter of intuition and perspective. Whereas a 21-year-old has a testosterone-driven desire to crush people.”

This brute-force, raw-power side of sport that might favour the young was overvalued for far too long in the athletic world. In many professional sports, it remains the benchmark of achievement and potential when youthful players are scouted and drafted, simply because sports intelligence is much harder to measure than speed or strength – and the accumulated wisdom that comes from long years in the game has yet to reveal itself.

But now the highly visible success of veteran elite athletes has reset traditional assumptions about talent, challenged one of the most glaring inefficiencies of the sport marketplace and provided a vicarious affirmation for the rest of us that the sardonic T-shirt credo wasn’t so far-fetched: I’m not getting older, I’m getting better.

“It is one of the major changes in sport in modern times,” says Jay Coakley, author of Sports in Society. “You can’t and you shouldn’t underestimate experience.”

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