Older, but not inferior. Secrets of longevity

Athletes don't work for adventure, they work for bread. They have families to take care of. They make money on what they can do. The longer they can cope, the better for them and their loved ones.

The theory that sport is for young people is today old and outdated. Professional arena stars enjoy fame and fortune in their 30s and well into their 30s. The age limit has been moved for years and this is a permanent trend.

Today it’s difficult to define the concepts of youth and old age. And not only in sports, also in the civil sector. Date of birth can be misleading in this matter. You can be an old man at twenty, with a hunched back and no strength. And you can be a teenager when you turn 100. Of course, not at a bar, but in an active sports way.

British Sikh Fauja Singh started running marathons at the age of 89. On his 100th birthday, he thought about what to do next and, of course, he continued. He withdrew from the routes only when he reached his 104th spring. With a personal best of 5 hours and 40 minutes. Well: he didn't turn back the counter, but he made the result.

One can argue that he was a phenomenon, that exceptions prove the rule, i.e. that sport is only for young people. But it's not like that. Sport, like any field of human activity, is not for the young or the old, but for those who are good at their craft. The world would be a better place if this simple truth finally reached everyone.

Veterans and youngsters differently

There are several reasons for athletic longevity. Some are confirmed by science examining specific cases of long life in general. These include genetics, climate, nutrition, physical activity and cheerful acceptance of changes in reality: a kind of practical stoicism.

This area is probably home to the world's oldest living Olympian, Uruguayan Félix Sienra. He was a sailor, he competed at the Olympics in 1948, today he is 107 years old, and he sailed until he was 100. He willingly gives interviews and… uses a mobile phone efficiently, like any youngster.

Both cases, that of the Sikh and the Uruguayan, contradict the well-known opinion that sport is health... lost. Professional sport, that is. Here in Poland we also had a „silver eagle”. His name was Stanisław Kowalski, and he started his athletics career at the age of 104.

Previously, he had not practiced any sport, apart from cycling to work. He ran sprints and shot put in Masters competitions. He didn't do it like Usain Bolt or Ryan Crouser, of course. But he also had the world record for 100 and 60 in his age category. He lasted on the pitch until he was 110 years old. He died at the age of 112.

Compared to such veterans, 80-year-olds are young people, just a bit different. Such as another Japanese, Yūichirō Miura, who climbed Mount Everest in his eighties - after two heart surgeries and pelvic and femur fractures behind him. Such as Pole Jan Morawiec, who completed 130 marathons and won the world champion title in the 80+ group.

The list of those who persevere is long. Much greater than common knowledge of their exploits. They don't want to rejuvenate so much as they want to not worry about the passage of time. No one can stop this clock. However, it is healthier to do your own thing than to lament about what you cannot control.

Slightly different motivations accompany the sport celebrities. The prolonged careers of modern sports idols result from the changes that have occurred in sports. And the key thing was to introduce professionalism in all disciplines. The rest, including the redefinition of the concepts - young and old - are inevitable consequences.

Hard landings of champions

Noriaki Kasai won an Olympic medal at the age of 41. He is the oldest medalist in the history of ski jumping. The first winner of the Ballon d'Or was Stanley Matthews, he was 44 years old at the time. Martina Navratilova played her last match on the court when she was fifty.
Japanese jumper Noriaki Kasai during training in 1999. Photo PAP/EPA PHOTO/JAN NIENHEYSEN
I'm only mentioning arena icons, but less popular athletes are also impressive. For example, this Israeli goalkeeper who played in a league match at the age of 73, the American boxer who won the championship belt at the age of 60 and many others.

This can be said of Poland as well. The average age of Polish national football representatives over the last two decades is 33-34. Some extended their competitive activity - Jerzy Dudek until the age of forty. Artur Boruc until the age of 37.

  The pride and glory of Polish football, Robert Lewandowski, is 35 years old. Volleyball players are younger than football players. Their average age is 26, although there are also those who are approaching or over thirty. The team of our athletes has always been and remains a platform for different generations, usually with a predominance of routine.

Ever since sports became a profession, romantic tales of youthful adventure have been ridiculed. People don't work for adventure, they work for bread. Athletes have families to take care of. They make money on what they can do. The longer they can cope, the better for them and their loved ones.

Years ago, sport was really an adventure, and even something more. Something like real-life survival game. All Olympic disciplines could only be practiced by amateurs. You could have fun with it, but you weren't allowed to make money from it, otherwise you'd be out of the game.

One often came out of the sport stripped naked. The longer the party lasted, the less fun it became. Extending your career did not translate into the content of your accounts. Many champions had hard landings. Some on the streets begging for money for a drink.

The transformation of sport, from a charitable mission for the people to the sphere of show business, has made it worth staying in shape because it simply pays off. However, moving age boundaries would not be possible without other changes.

The development of science and technology results in better service for athletes with damaged bodies. Nowadays, a broken athlete can be repaired faster, even after a serious, complicated injury. Medicine has appropriate equipment, doctors use innovative therapies.

Of course, prevention is better than repair, so here too there was progress, starting from the way of nutrition. We are what we eat and professional athletes are fed according to this rule, based on the needs of specific disciplines.

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Athletes' bodies are a bit like car engines. Civilian cars run on commonly available fuel, but F1 cars need a special mixture, and the same applies to professional athletes. And this is a huge difference compared to the past, which is not without significance for extending sports activity.

I remember the menus of athletics training camps were prepared according to a simple principle: anything, as long as there was a lot. To eat your fill, you had to eat three helpings of mashed potatoes covered with thick gravy, because you could only get meat once, and in a small piece.

The mere sight of such a diet would cause a modern, self-respecting champion to suffer from indigestion for a week. Today they are very sensitive about food, and many are even hypersensitive. Although I won't say that here and there I see famous and popular people secretly eating hamburgers. I guess to keep from going mad.

Either way, today’s sport icons have more opportunities to function in sports longer than their predecessors.

More thorns than roses

Real fans understand sports and support athletes, so it's worth fighting for. Attached to their idols, they want to watch them as often and as long as possible. This also influences decisions about extended careers.

But it's not a path strewn with roses, there’s more thorns than flowers. Medicine, diet, new training solutions using modern technologies help in this art of survival, but they do not solve the problem. The outcome remains uncertain.

The effect is influenced by two factors: mileage and consumption. The sports potential of an athlete depends on the number of years spent training and competing and on the state of wear and tear of the body, both physically and mentally.

The longer your career lasts, the more you have to demand from yourself. Experience is an advantage, but it is not enough. A player in his late forties must train more, which is neither easy nor simple after years of active service. It is difficult to develop new stimuli that will stimulate the body tired of sports.

Some people take shortcuts and turn to the dark side and take drugs. In such cases, long sports experience does not hinder, but accelerates one's career. Doping imposed on a mega-trained body gives a powerful kick, followed by the so-called late championship effect.

This state of intensification does not last long, at most a year or two. It often leads to serious injuries because it is always a rough ride. The artificially overclocked body reaches speeds it cannot sustain. But even without injuries, such actions herald an end of professional competition.

To sum up, the transformation of sport from amateur to professional has changed a lot; among other things, the concept of age. Not so much that the national football team could be filled with centenarians. But it can be done with people in their thirties. Without fear of being too old. In the belief that they are better. If it were otherwise, only beautiful twenty-year-olds would play in this team.

That's actually quite good news. At least in sports, it's quality that counts, no nonsense. The distance between better and worse can be precisely measured with a tape measure, stopwatch or goal difference. Young people don't get bonuses for being young, and no one makes things easier for older people and they don't carry them in sedan chairs anymore.

– Marek Jóźwik

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

-translated by Maciej Sienkiewicz
Main photo: Marathon runner Fauja Singh, a British Sikh, aged 101, exercises in a park in Hong Kong in 2013. Photo Bobby Yip / Reuters / Forum
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