The Grey Olympics

We have Olympics, Para Olympics, Gay Olympics… so why not Grey Olympics?

In 1965 Elliot Jacques wrote that 40 was considered the ‘middle’ of ones life and this age group mostly focused on their mortality and as a consequence engaged in a set of panic driven behaviours known as ‘midlife crises’. Although this may still hold true for some, advancements in health care and better general health and living standards have progressed that yardstick to 50 or 60. Plastic surgery has also assisted, but that’s another story. Despite these age related improvements, sport and competition events have yet to capitalise on this ‘evolving market’.

There is ample research detailing the benefits of maintaining fitness from the NHS and Age UK who list a range of healthy lifestyle activities. But a deeper search reveals a movement of competitive sporting websites aimed at those over 50. ‘Running for Fitness’ provides information linked to age. They also promote the ‘Age Grading’. A tool constructed in the 80’s by the World Association of Veteran Athletes which assesses how well you have performed in an event (once your age has been taken into account). This means that although we’ve had the capacity for ‘elders’ to participate in competitions since 1989. Indeed, I took up long distance running in 2012 and came second in the Tessa Sandersons’ Newham 10K in 2012 – once age adjusted. More impressive still was recently retired Mr Fauja Singh, the 101 year old competitor!

A photo of marathon runner Fauja Singh
Photo of Fauja Singh, the worlds’ oldest Marathon runner

But outside of marathons – which draw older elite runners such as Paula Radcliffe and Priscah Jeptoo, mixing of age in sports appears thin on the ground. Not only is it thin in practise, there is little in the way of promotion, with no sporting magazines that focus on 50+ competitors and almost nothing on national television or press. It seems obvious why both commercial markets and competition agencies are slow to change: There is no direct umbrella group to offer pressure for the sporting over 50s!

 The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) is an extensive long-term investigation into the effects of ageing on the population’s economic, social and psychological life.

A study of the ‘elders’ lifestyle’ notes that one in six people in England over the age of 50 are socially isolated, play little part in the cultural or civic life… Single men are the group most likely to live in alone… while the poorer someone is, the more likely they are to lose touch with their social network in old age.

Not only are we becoming more isolated as we age and absent from the sporting media, even when we do perform, little attention is given to those achievements. Is it any wonder we begin to lock ourselves away at 50!

Many may recall the Paralympics of 2012, where Clare Balding and Ade Adepitan went through the Classification Processes of competitors using the Lexi Decoder graphics on C4. Although brilliant and informative, we are yet to have television coverage of London, Brighton, or Windermere Marathons or our Great Northern Run etc using the ‘Age Grading’ to discuss elder participants. And unless we complain, we are unlikely to have any coverage or graphics showing viewers how the ‘age classification’ works and therefore how amazing many of our older competitors are!

A photo of Teena Training
Teena Training

Although running is not for everyone there are other events where competition can be encouraged. This would allow citizens up and down the country to compete against each other, share training tips – like how to manage the menopause n sports or how to resume sports after one’s ‘midlife crises’ etc. Most importantly, it would begin to breakdown many of the social barriers of isolation along with some aspects of ageism.

Sport shops would do well to have age awareness training within their sales teams along with clothing and accessories that are not just marketed to the young. And finally television, radio and print journalist could easily give a few lines or airtime to the massive achievements of those competitors over 50.

Age can often be used to justify a set of negative beliefs. Ageism hits both the young and the elderly, systematically excluding them from mainstream or portraying them according to a stereotype that has long since fallen out of fashion. It results in people being excluded from things for no other reason but their age.Whether competing or spectator or consuming other cultural artefact, an international event of competition would provide a great excuse to come together… Is it time for Grey Olympics!

Teena Lashmore

Writer and Behaviourist, London Probation Trust

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