SPORTS

Smarter training, economic perks let Olympic athletes stay in the Games longer

08/02/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/01/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - A 37-year-old flag-bearer. A 39-year old cyclist. Sailors in their 40s. A retirement-aged show jumper.

Canadians might be tempted to think the Olympics are pushing the boundaries of middle age this year, given the vintages of some of the athletes representing this country at the London Games. (They are, in order: Simon Whitfield, 37; Clara Hughes, 39; Tyler Bjorn, 42 and Richard Clarke, 43; Ian Millar, 65.)

But Canada's not alone. Where once the Olympics were the domain of competitors in their teens and 20s, for a while now the Games have seen athletes who come back for two, three, four Olympics, striving to be the best in sport into their 30s and sometimes beyond. At the far end of the spectrum, Millar is competing at his 10th Games.

"That's a clear, overwhelming trend," Carl Foster, an exercise physiologist in the department of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, says of the lengthening of Olympic careers.

Whitfield, a triathlete who won a surprise gold in Sydney in 2000 and an even more surprising silver in Beijing in 2008, agrees.

"There's definitely a trend now to older athletes and longer careers," says Whitfield, who proudly led the Canadian team into the opening ceremony as Canada's flag-bearer.

Whitfield puts it down to the sports science and physiotherapy support that athletes now get, and improvements in coaching.

"In Canada, coaching levels have really risen and evolved," he says. "And I think with more access to that, we've been able to lengthen our careers."

Others say those factors play a role, but insist the major change is economic.

The last — and only — time Canada hosted the Summer Olympics (Montreal, 1976), the rules of the International Olympic Committee barred athletes from earning money from endorsements, appearances or competitions.

Olympic athletes were amateurs. Athletes who earned money from their sporting endeavours weren't Olympians.

As a result, Olympic athletes were generally students, or impoverished — or both. They were supported by their families or a university athletic scholarships, which were allowed. Come graduation, reality bit.

"Certainly it was hard to be an athlete in most of the Western countries after you graduated from university," Foster says. "That meant that by the time you finished school, you had to do something with life."

Foster stresses Western countries because in the former Eastern Bloc, athletes were generally members of the army, supported by the state as they strove to win glory for the motherland.

In the West, the amateurs-only system meant by their mid-20s, most athletes who excelled at Olympic sports needed to move on. Find careers. Repay loans. Marry. Have kids. Make way for the next generation.

In the mid-1980s, the IOC dropped references to amateurs and professionals from the Olympic charter. Over time, elite athletes — or some, anyway — started snagging sponsorships. And that, observers say, has made a world of difference.

Some star Olympic athletes earn a tidy living. They aren't in the same stratosphere as the tennis and basketball pros who now play in the Games — Forbes magazine listed NBA star LeBron James as the highest earner at the London Olympics with an annual income of US$53 million. But a number make enough to live well while still competing.

That said, there are still plenty of athletes who struggle. But being an elite athlete who competes in Olympic sport is now a job for many.

So where the previous system created the illusion that athletes peaked in their early 20s — because few stuck around longer to disprove the notion — now we're seeing that athletes can be competitive beyond that. And that's where the other factors come into play, such as a better understanding of how to train or improved techniques in repairing sports injuries.

In respect to the latter, Foster notes that an injury of the anterior cruciate ligament of the knee used to be a career ender. Now an ACL injury equals six months of rehab.

U.S. female soccer star Abby Wambach is a good example. She suffered a bad break in her left leg just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Foster says Wambach had to relearn to walk after the injury, but is back for the London Games, and at 32, is still a major force.

"She's one of the best players on the planet," says Foster. "And yet, 20 years ago the minute that leg was broken, her career would have been gone."

Some of the longevity is about luck, some of it is about smarts and some of it is about the will to compete. Dr. Michael Joyner, an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says athletes with long careers are able to put up with the rigours of high-level training.

"There's something different about them in the sense that they maintain their motivation," Joyner says.

"And I think that the people who are able to do well as they get older are able to kind of either be lucky and not get injured or have training regimens specifically designed to avoid injury. So they kind of balance their hard days and easy days and accommodate for recovery."

Foster agrees, saying athletes and coaches have become smarter about pacing training, especially regarding the importance of building in recovery time.

In cases like Dara Torres, the American swimmer who swam in — and medalled at — five Olympics, late career success involved limiting the number of events she entered. (Torres, now 45, narrowly missed making the team for London.)

Eventually time does start to catch up with an aging athlete.

Even Hughes, who has had remarkable longevity as both a cyclist in the Summer Games and speedskater in the Winter Games, has grown weary of the athlete's lifestyle. After finishing fifth in the women's time trial Wednesday, she said she no longer wanted to dedicate her life to competitive sport and London was her final Olympics.

"It has been awesome but it has been so hard, for 22 years this has been my life, and I knew when it was time to finish skating and I know when it's time to finish on the bike, and I felt it here," she said. "This is it, and that's OK. It actually honestly brings me joy to know that and to feel that and to realize that you actually just do know. What a great thing."

While athletes like Hughes may lose some strength as they age, they gain an understanding of what it takes to win. They can strategize better. They have that much more experience competing in their sport. They don't sweat the small stuff.

In some sports, that's not enough. But in others, these advantages can compensate for the power losses, says Foster. "If it's a sport that requires skill or craft or craftiness or game knowledge, I think you can have a fairly long career."

Whitfield believes experience does give him an edge.

"Whatever you give up in the ability to maybe recover or more responsibility that you inevitably take on as an older athlete, you gain in experience and perspective," he says.

"And I definitely use that. Any little hiccup I've gone through I've been able to keep a broad perspective on. Understand that it is just a hiccup and not panic. And I've been able to plan out and stay on course."

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