Our sporting habits naturally decline with age, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. The recent, remarkable European Masters Athletics Championships, held in Aarhus, Denmark, showcased competing athletes in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. It is a genuinely awe-inspiring event.

Introducing Masters Athletics

Masters athletics is for veteran athletes competing in track and field, road running and cross country. The events comprise five age groups, beginning at a jarringly young 35 – while men as old as 105 and women in their 100s have taken part in the past.

The images from the recent event in Denmark are, frankly, startling, for the sight of sporting silver foxes is unusual. At last summer’s Rio Olympics, South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk was catapulted to stardom when he won 400m gold, breaking Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old record. When his coach – the 74 year old great grandmother Ans Botha – ran to celebrate with her protege, she was blocked by officials who simply didn’t believe she was part of van Niekerk’s entourage, so unusual is the sight of pensioners in such an environment.

Professional and elite sport will, naturally, always be the preserve of the young. Its emphasis – on strength, speed, agility, stamina – requires levels of fitness the like of which most of us can only dream. This represents much of the appeal for the spectator – outstanding athletic feats can appear nigh on miraculous, and the athletes themselves almost superhuman.

Sporting success and achievement comes in many forms

But Masters athletics serve as a wonderful reminder than sporting achievement comes in many forms. Hilja Bakhoff, a 91 year old Estonian, set a new world record in the women’s weights throw event (90-94 age group) with a throw of 8.08m. Rosa Pederson, an 87 year old Dane, won the women’s long jump in her age group with a jump of 2.72m. Great Britain’s oldest athlete at the event was Dalbir Singh Deol, aged 91 – and he duly won the 400m. The inspiring and quite frankly amazing stories are abundant. Every athlete has a story, a different reason for competing. But they are all inspiring.

The event was covered, quite wonderfully, by photographer Alex Rotas, and her joyous images were recently featured on the BBC website.

She told the BBC:

I was watching these people aged in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s just achieve the most incredible athletic feats that I never imagined were possible. I found it very moving and it made me recalibrate my own sense of what the ageing body can do. It’s not only their athleticism that comes through, it’s their joy. These people are so full of life that it’s an inspiration on every single level. Alex Rotas, photographer

Elite sports stars are heralded as role models, elevated to inspire the next generation. But the marvel of Masters athletics is that it offers an example to us all, not just youngsters or aspiring athletes. It’s not just about defying old age; it also shows us what happens when you stop being afraid – afraid of getting older, but also of starting something new, of trying and failing. Remember: it is never too late.

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