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Interview: Older Athletes Sweep Away Preconceptions


Dr. Josefin Eman

Today, a growing number of men and women choose the thrill of competition and practice competitive sports into old age.

So what is it about competition?

A new Swedish study examines the trend and discovers engaging in competitive sports changes our understanding of growing old.

The research was conducted by Josefin Eman, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Umeå University in Sweden.

The findings were published in the Journal of Aging Studies (December 2012).

AHB reached Dr. Eman in Umeå, Sweden.

Ruth Dempsey: So what drew you to the study of competitive sport and aging?

Josefin Eman: Competitive sport and old age are seen as a contradiction. Older athletics disrupt our notions of aging. This sparked my interest.

RD: Men and women in the study were aged 66 to 90 years of age. Were they active in sports throughout their lives?

JE: Yes, but some of the women withdrew from competition during the child-rearing years and returned to it later.

In old age, men and women engaged in similar forms of competitive sports: skiing, swimming and running, for example.

RD: A male cyclist sees an old man when he looks in the mirror, and a female runner talks about seeing her mother in the mirror in the morning . . .

JE: Like other older adults, many participants felt estranged from their aged exterior. Their outer looks did not represent their "true" inner core. So neither the male cyclist nor the female runner felt connected to their aged selves in the mirror. We refer to this phenomenon as the mask of aging.

RD: Surprisingly, this changes when it comes to sports. How is that?

JE: When practicing competitive sports, older athletes emphasized their physical capabilities. As a result, they tended to revaluate their understandings of old age. This could mean feelings of agelessness or a sense of coming closer to ones "actual" age.

For example, one male track and field athlete remarked, "In my private life I do not detect any major changes in my bodily functions, but it is definitely noticeable in my athletic results."

On the other hand, the male cyclist you mentioned said he feels young when he rides his bicycle because he has the stamina and mobility of a 45-year-old.

RD: What about the women?

JE: Women were also influenced by their physical capabilities. The runner who talked about seeing her mother in the mirror lacked the stamina of earlier years. She also felt her muscle power was decreasing.

But another female runner claimed she was able to maintain her speed through more practice and increased discipline.

RD: The men seemed to focus on results . . .

JE: Yes, while both men and women made sense of old age through assessments of their physical capabilities; the men were more black-and- white in their approach. Centimetres, seconds and races completed mattered to the men.

As one highly successful athlete put it: "I fear the moment when I will start seeing my results decline. I do not want to experience it. It is a fear of growing old, plainly speaking."

Male participants tended to buy into the cultural narrative of decline. It was just a matter of time before their results would deteriorate.

RD: How did female athletics make sense of growing old?

JE: They had a more positive view of old age. They admitted that growing old might entail physical setbacks and diminished athletic results, but they also saw it as a period in life when they could increase their endurance, hone their discipline and become more empowered.

RD: The findings showed males used competitive sports to distinguish themselves from other older adults. Is that right?

JE: Yes. Men tended to separate themselves from other old people on the basis of appearance or functionality. So many men used sports as their primary means of distinguishing themselves from other old adults, arguing their practice enabled them to transcend more physical barriers than their age-peers.

RD: Women were inspired by their 80 and 90-year-old peers . . .

JE: That’s right. The women appeared to have felt little need to separate themselves from other old. In fact, they saw old women as "tough" and "inspirational" and lauded them as their role models.

However they viewed old men as relatively weak. For example, one woman described her husband as having poor stamina. "[He] gets winded and wheezes when we are walking over the smallest hills."

Women also separated themselves from older athletics who did not measure up to their high standards. Commenting on a 93-year-old swimming poorly, one participant remarked, "It is not fun seeing an old person struggling to do her best."

RD: So how did competitive sport alter participants’ understanding of old age?

JE: As athletes, the participants in the study assessed themselves on different parameters than non-athletic aging individuals do. Athletes assess themselves primarily by what they are capable of doing, not by what they look like or how they feel.

This affected how men and women made sense of growing old. It offered them another way to think about aging.

More generally, female athletes, in particular, seem willing to counter cultural notions that equate aging with decline.

Women in my study were confident, uncompromising and inclined to rise above adversities. Many had had their athletic passion challenged continually over their lives with questions about whether it was safe, appropriate or interfered with their roles as mothers. As old athletes, they drew on each others’ strength to empower their practice.

Unlike men, who saw aging as a down-hill slope, many women connected their increased athletic strength to the actual process of growing old, saying that their athletic discipline and endurance had increased with age.

But we must bear in mind that competitive sport is a celebration of strength. And does little to call into question society’s disdain for decline and weakness.

Also, my research has focused on members of a relatively privileged white middle-class in Sweden. There are reasons to believe that marginalized old people may have greater difficulties confronting the stereotypes of aging. In future studies, we need to include a greater diversity of athletically-active old adults.