Skip to main content
london 2012

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

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."

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."

She cut her pool time in half as she aged without sacrificing power. Though her body may have been weaker in absolute terms, she became much more efficient at turning strength into propulsion.

More advanced training methods can make older athletes look good, to be sure. But Ms. Torres had another advantage that can accrue to veteran athletes: Money from sponsorships and motivational-speaking gigs that could pay for a vast team that included both upper-body and lower-body trainers, two masseurs, a chiropractic neurologist, a naturopath and a good old-fashioned aquatic coach. The cosseting of the aging elite body does not come cheap, but the huge support system can earn its keep in sports that define victory in milliseconds.

Torres's ascent to stardom in her 40s was a powerful reminder of the commercial value age can bring to sports. "She's the athlete as a brand," Mr. Coakley says. "Sponsors are more willing to back older athletes because they can sell products to an older market searching for role models and inspiration in what is very much a youth-oriented popular culture." The athlete still has to perform in order to retain that position of influence (even if, like Lance Armstrong, they might gear down from Tour de France to Ironman triathlon). But the money that flows in supplies a competitive advantage that partly offsets the effects of aging.

Still, Ms. Torres is something of an outlier: She gets all that money and attention because there is no one quite like her. In the more typical culture of Olympic-level performers, the funding is not far above the subsistence level, so athletes have to look for other reasons to keep competing and stay competitive as they age in their career.

Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet will be 33 when he runs in London, which isn't untypical for his event. "You see a lot of older marathoners," he says. "It takes a lot of time to build up the training level the marathon requires. At the same time, you don't need the high-end speed that tends to go away as you get older."

The marathon favours older runners to that extent – even recreational marathoners recognize that building up endurance is something you can do well into later life. But when Mr. Coolsaet talks about the appeal of the 42.195-kilometre discipline, he is more likely to describe it with a newcomer's enthusiasm.

"In most sports, you do the same event for year after year and your motivation starts to wane. But I was a 5K and 10K runner until 2007, I got injured in 2008, and didn't start the marathon until 2009. So, for me, it's like a rejuvenation. It got me excited again, doing a whole new event, and if you're not excited, you can't do it."

Even elite athletes who make a career out of their sport need to feel inspired by what they do if they are going to stick around for years. "It's a great challenge, a great endeavour and a great adventure," Mr. Whitfield says, summing up the triathlete's itinerant life.

But the Olympics are a cruel reminder of time's unstoppable advances – is this the end, or can you keep it going?

"I've thought about it a lot, especially this year," Mr. Coolsaet says. "But it's not good mentally to put the Olympics on the pedestal and think about where you'll be four years from now. There are still the world championships between now and then, and I'm really motivated by the desire to run a fast time in the marathon. After 2013, I may take it year by year. But the Pan-Am Games are enticing in 2015 because they're happening here [in Toronto]. And if you get to 2015, what's one more year?"

An athlete's calculations never stop. Mr. Coolsaet has studied other distance runners and has seen many runners go downhill quickly at his age and a few go strong into their late 30s. But he is still excited. He feels optimistic because his times have been getting faster as he has matured in his sport and he is certain he has got an even faster time remaining in his body. Only time will tell.

John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

Interact with The Globe