SI Vault
Kenny Moore
August 14, 1989
Spirits soared and records fell as 4,950 hoary but hale athletes competed at the World Veterans' games
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August 14, 1989

The Times Of Their Lives

Spirits soared and records fell as 4,950 hoary but hale athletes competed at the World Veterans' games

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Paula Schneiderhan, also of West Germany, won a tight race for the 200 in an age 65-69 world record 31.65. "Thirty one seconds!" said Tiff. "That's hard for anyone, of any age. Think what an extraordinary sanctuary we've come to. How on earth have they all reached it?"

Another older competitor, 72-year-old Pay ton Jordan, has kept very close to his sport. The coach of the 1968 U.S. Olympic track team, Jordan coached at Stanford from 1956 to '79 and perfected a personal system of very gradual warm-ups, drills and rest days that have preserved his speed. He won the age 70-74 100 in 13.28 (his world record for that age group, set two years ago, is 13.00) and added the 200 in 27.09 and the 400 in 1:06.02.

The 200s concluded with the return of Eddie Hart, 40, who won the 1972 Olympic trials 100 in a then world-record-equaling 9.9 and anchored the U.S. Olympic 400-meter relay team to victory. Now, alas, he is better remembered for being one of two U.S. sprinters who showed up late for the 100-meter quarterfinals in Munich and was disqualified. Hart had already won the 100 in Eugene in 10.87, and as he pulled away to take the 200 in 21.74, he seemed identical to the sprinter of memory, his hair only lightly touched with white, as if he had dashed through a freezer. "This could get a lot more competitive," he said, "Plenty of guys, if they could see this, they'd start training today."

The evergreen Oerter won by almost 31 feet, troubled a little by the new discus he had to take up at age 50. It weighs but 3.3 pounds, down from the regulation 4.4. "It's like trying to throw a cookie or a potato chip," he said. "It's gone before you can really lean on it."

But of the gathering, Oerter spoke in the highest terms. "This is more like the Olympics than the Olympics." he said. "None of the drugs, politics or money. Just people who enjoy competition without being desperate or unwell about it. Of course, this is an elite group. They have a lot of advantages."

They all could afford the trip, for one thing. A study has shown that the competitors in these veterans' meets (masters is the term more commonly used in the U.S.) are affluent, educated and competitive, but only about half made a career out of athletics in their youth.

"I didn't know any of the guys in my event." said Tiff, "but they were good. I asked them, Where were you in '72?' They said they'd jumped for fun, but didn't buy into the 'athlete' label. They did it more for the art of jumping."

Indeed, the few Olympians who have persevered seem most moved by the act of testing themselves and less by the reward. Yet in the older brackets, those who shone in youth have long since been eclipsed by those who rose up later.

With one glaring exception. The Reverend Bob Richards, 63, won Olympic pole vault golds in 1952 and '56 and has been hurling himself over the bar ever since. In Eugene, a recurrence of an old injury in his right knee forced him to miss the decathlon, but he entered the vault anyway. "It's bone against bone, and it hurts." he said, "but you have to live with the aches and pains."

The sight of Richards gimping around in search of ice and DMSO gave rise to a passing fear that masters' competition provides a convenient venue for obsessive souls to grind themselves down to nubs. And a man who has given 14,000 motivational speeches can hardly be expected to know when to quit.

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