Older athletes break records at 2022 Beijing Olympics: NPR
BEIJING — German speed skater Claudia Pechstein smiled broadly, breathless as she crossed the finish line in the women’s 3,000 meters on February 5.
Pechstein, a longtime speed skater, looked delighted with her arrival – which was the last. She will turn 50 the month of the Beijing Olympics in 2022 – her eighth.
“I wasn’t too fast, but I smiled [after crossing the finish line] because today I achieved my goal of competing in my eighth Olympics,” she told reporters.
There’s an old saying, “Age is just a number.” It seems that at these Winter Games that has never been truer.
Pechstein didn’t break any speed records on Feb. 5, but she made history as the oldest female athlete to compete at the Winter Games. She equaled the record for appearances by Winter Olympians – also held by Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai.
She is also the second oldest Olympic speed skater, behind Britain’s Albert Tebbit, who competed aged 52 in 1924.
Pechstein is among a large group of “older” athletes – those over 35 (who, for a lifetime spent in competition, are considered older) – who are breaking records. Some even earn medals for doing so.
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NPR has found at least 140 athletes from each participating country who will compete in these Winter Games and who are over the age of 35, according to the Olympic Studies Center. This number may be updated later as the center has stated that the final number of participants will not be known until after the Games.
Among them are American snowboarders – Lindsey Jacobellis, 36, and Nick Baumgartner, 40 – who made history after winning gold in the mixed team snowboard cross event on Saturday.
Earlier in Beijing, Jacobellis became the oldest American woman to win a Winter Games gold medal. Now she adds another. Baumgartner’s victory makes him the oldest snowboarder to win a medal of any color at the Winter Olympics.
The oldest medalist in Beijing so far is Frenchman Johan Clarey. He won his first medal – a silver – at the age of 41. This is after having participated in five previous Winter Games and being far from having come close to the podium.
“I did everything late in my life, you know, since I was a young boy,” he said after his victory. “That’s why my mum said I took time off to do everything – walk, talk and everything. Apparently for my sports career it’s pretty much the same.”
Ice hockey is banking on older players this year
According to data from the Olympic Studies Center, ice hockey has the highest number of athletes – 27 – over the age of 35.
Team Canada has five hockey players over the age of 35. One of them, Benjamin Street, turns 35 on February 13 while at the Games, bringing the total to 6.
National teams had to rush to find athletes after the National Hockey League announced that no players would compete in the Beijing Olympics.
National teams, like Canada, were looking for hockey players from other professional divisions or recently retired athletes.
“When selecting our team, we selected the best players who played in leagues that did not include the National Hockey League, and built a team that we believe gives us the best chance of winning a medal. gold,” said Spencer Sharkey, a spokesperson. for Team Canada men’s hockey.
Sharkey said: “If anything, it shows that players who have played for a long time are still capable of competing at the highest level.”
Curling benefits from experience
Curling follows ice hockey with 21 competitors over the age of 35. The oldest this year is the Norwegian Torger Nergaard who, at 47, is participating in his sixth Olympic Games.
“I always try to have fun, so that’s the most important thing in my opinion,” Nergaard said.
Nergaard stuck around for so long that he actually competed in the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics with his current teammate’s father, Magnus Vaagberg.
The oldest Olympian of all time was also a curler, Carl August Kronlund, who, at age 58, played for Sweden in 1924. He was not only the oldest medalist at the Winter Olympics, but also the competitor the oldest.
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“While the elite aspect of the game is more physically demanding, modern training methods have allowed curlers to continue to compete at this level for longer,” said Christopher Hamilton of the World Curling Federation.
The captaincy position, which is more mentally demanding than other aspects of the game, benefits from a player with more age and experience, Hamilton said.
American John Shuster, 39, who is competing in his fifth Olympics in Beijing as a skip, says the Games may not be his last. He won gold four years ago at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
“Curling is obviously one of those sports where you can have some longevity,” he said in Beijing. “I’ve been lucky to have great teams in my career and I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. I feel like I’m still improving, he’s so hard to think about quitting now or anytime soon.”
Athletes refocus on their health
Olympic athletes follow a larger trend of professional athletes competing longer than they ever have before.
Earlier this month, NFL quarterback Tom Brady announced his retirement at age 45 after 22 years of professional football.
At 37, Lebron James is still one of the best basketball players. And Sue Bird, still playing basketball at 41, is one of the greatest WNBA players of all time.
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According to experts, this is thanks to improvements in training, nutrition and sports medicine.
Shuster said he has been focused on improving his health since 2014.
“The game has become younger and more athletic,” he said in Beijing. “It’s been part of what I’ve been doing since 2014, getting in better shape.”
Baumgartner said his path to gold required more work than ever.
“As you get older, it’s hard to see the youngsters taking over and trying to push you out of the sport so the hunger is strong,” he said after his win.
He encourages other forties not to count themselves too early.
“It’s never too late to take what you want out of life and follow your dreams,” he said. “You let yourself down if you quit too soon, no matter how old you are.”