Most sports, such as running, divide the competitive field by age. This means that if you are, for example, competing in a road race, then you could place in your age group even if you did not place overall. This approach is based on the fact that a person’s abilities vary with age. Most age groups are just designated by number ranges (15-19, for example) some of them get actual names.
If you are a competitive athlete, when you turn 40 you get classified as a master (at least in many sports). This is, on the whole, much nicer than being called “old.” A special name is granted for this age because, presumably, when a person hits forty their age is significantly impacting his/her performance. Some events add the Grand Master level and there are rumors of Supreme Grand Masters. Some speak of a rare category known as “damn, you’re not dead yet?” But these rumors have not been confirmed.
In the past, it was generally accepted that hitting 40 was the end of a person’s glory days in most sports. In some sports (such as gymnastics), the end is much earlier. However, there is some evidence that this is changing.
While I do not have the time or desire to do a proper research project, I have noticed that runners 40 and over have been doing quite well in running events. At this moment, the most famous masters division athlete in the world is Dara Torres. As the media has been pointing out, she is competing with women (girls in some cases) twenty or more years younger. Even her swimming goggles are older than many of the women she is swimming against. She recently won a silver medal, thus setting a new record in terms of age.
Given that people are supposed to get slower and weaker with age, people might be wondering why she is doing so well in particular and why masters athletes are making good showings these days.
In Ms. Torres’ case, she has excellent physiology and body type. She has kept up with her training and this serves to diminish the draining power of time. Further, she has professional trainers and support people. Also, she has that unquantifiable factor that athletes recognize: the will.
In terms of the general matter, one factor that contributes to the current good showings by older athletes is that they often have been in their sports a long time and have maintained themselves. Staying fit has numerous physiological benefits and one of these is that an active body does not age the same way as an inactive body. From a physiological standpoint, an active body is biologically younger than a non-active one. Hence, an athlete who stays active can stay competitive for quite some time because her/his body is effectively younger than the calendar age.
Another factor is that sports medicine in particular and health sciences in general have made advances. As such, people are better maintained and thus are able to stay in the sport longer (and be in better shape while doing so).
A third factor is that people seem to have different attitudes about sports now. When I was a kid, it was rare to see “older people” being really active. Kids did sports in high school and perhaps college. But, after that, people seemed to settle down to less active live styles. These days, people seem to be more inclined to stay active and remain competitive. This is especially true in running. There are people 70 and above who still race and people in their 50s are still able to compete effectively with many of the young folks. In my own case, I’m not as fast as I was twenty or even ten years ago (I’m 42). But I still place well in races and especially enjoy beating the twenty somethings who weren’t even born when I started running track.
I think this is an excellent trend and I hope that Ms. Torres success will encourage people to remain (or become) active as they get older. Obviously, we all cannot take home an Olympic medal, but we can all be masters.