What do Malaga, Spain; Auckland, New Zealand; Daegu, South Korea; and Torun, Poland have in common? In the past few years, these cities have all been sites of major international athletic competitions. However, these competitions were not what most sports fans expect. They involved “Masters Athletes”, competitors ranging in age from 35 to over 100 years old. At Masters competitions, it is not uncommon to see athletes in their 70s, 80s and 90s competing in pole vault, high jump, hurdlesand other events normally associated with athletes decades younger.
Who are these Masters Athletes? Some of them are former Olympians or other athletes who have been competing all their lives. But many are ordinary enthusiasts who began their active participation in sports later in life or after retirement. They all share the common belief that sports are not only for the young.
Emerging on nationally and internationally organized bases in the 1970s, Masters competitions generally feature the same sports offered to younger athletes. For example, this summer’s National Senior Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico, feature track and field, swimming, tennis, basketball, softball, volley ball and golf, among other sports. Sometimes a sport is added that appeals primarily to older people, such as horseshoes. To level the playing field, Masters Athletes usually compete in 5-year age groups: ages 35-39, 40-44 and so on.
Track and field is one of the most well-organized sports on an international basis for Masters Athletes. At last summer’s World Masters Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Malaga, 101 countries were represented. The competition is real, and athletes take pride in winning medals for their homecountries. At the same time, the spirit of international camaraderie is palpable, and it is inspirational to see older athletes from around world support one another as they compete.
In Masters Track and Field, national indoor and outdoor championships are held every year with many local and regional meets held throughout the year. World outdoor competitions occur in the even years (the 2020 meet will be in Toronto) while world indoorcompetitions occur in the odd years (the 2021 meet will be in Edmonton).
As the population ages, Masters Athletics fits in with the current trend of active vacations for older travelers, with an emphasis on “active”. At most world competitions, athletic events are contested everyday with the exception of one or two “off” days that give athletes a chance to see the local sights. Generally, the local organizing committee for the competitions arranges tours for visiting athletes. Thus, the cities that sponsor international Masters competitions profit handsomely from tourism revenues. At the 2017 World Masters Games, Auckland welcomed more than 25,000 athletes. Albuquerque will host more than 13,000 competitors for the 2019 National Masters Games.
A powerful benefit of the Masters Athletics movement is that it helps to debunk some of the stereotypes related to aging. At the recent Indoor World Championships in Torun, over 30% of Team USA’s medals were won by athletes over the age of 80. This remarkable statistic seems to embody the simple but powerful slogan of a past World Masters Games: “Fit for Life.”