Elderly athletes defy age stigma

Fed up with the depressing imagery surrounding aging, photographer Alex Rotas decided to document an altogether different side to growing old

Six years ago I was a sporty person heading for my 60th birthday, looking around for positive imagery associated with ageing: something that I could relate to and that would encourage me to look forward to the years ahead.

I didn’t find much. There were images of people slumped in their chairs in care homes, not to mention the stooped ‘elderly people’ road signs acting as constant reminders of what lay before me. I knew there was an alternative to this depressing story – I was far from the only active senior on the block. But where were the images to prove it?

I wanted to document the other side of the story that I knew was out there. A friend told me about the European Masters Games – a huge, multi-sport international event that was to be held in Italy the following year, and I decided to go. Surely there I’d get some pictures of older people that could act as an antidote to the kind of imagery I was fed up with seeing all the time. I wasn’t a photographer (actually I didn’t then even have a camera) but I found myself a teacher (and a camera) and set about learning.

“These athletes show us what’s possible as we age. Sitting slumped in a chair is not inevitable.”

Fast forward and there I was at Lignano, Italy, in September 2011. The stadium was teeming with activity. Everywhere I looked something was happening: races at different points on the track, people leaping over high jumps or into the sand of the long jump, discuses and javelins flying across the central grassy area, white-dressed officials checking on rule infringements and firing starting guns.

These events are no modest home-spun competitions either. They are massive. The World Masters Games held in Turin in 2013 attracted over 15,500 sportsmen and women from all over the globe, and 3,000 of them were over 60. You actually qualify as a masters athlete at the tender age of 35, but as you grow older, you compete in your own five-year age band. So you might be part of the 35-39 age group, the 40-44 year-old group, the 45-49 year-old category and so on, right up to the 95-99 age group and the 100+.

Finally, a little statistic from the world of track and field lest you should be thinking that these older age categories are full of valiant but doddering oldies: the world record for 100m in the men’s 70-74 year-old age group is 12.77 seconds. That’s just three seconds slower than Usain Bolt’s Olympic gold medal time (9.63 seconds) at the London Olympics in 2012. Surprised?

All the athletes in the photographs are over 70. When I first saw these older athletes I found myself reconfiguring my whole idea of what ‘growing old’ meant and I hope something of this comes across in this photo essay. We might not wish (or be able) to emulate them but these athletes show us what’s possible as we age. Sitting slumped in a chair is not inevitable.


Rosemary Chrimes, Scotland, born 1933


© Alex Rotas

Chrimes prepares to break the world shot put record for her age group (80-84 years old) at the British Masters Indoor Track & Field Championships at Lee Valley in March 2014, with a throw of 9.58m.

Reinhard Dahms, Germany, born 1939


© Alex Rotas

Dahms competing for Germany in the men’s pole vault, at the European Veterans Athletics Championships Zittau, 2012.

Hildegund Buerkle, Germany, born 1934


© Alex Rotas

Buerkle on her way to gold medal position and a new world record in the women’s 100m dash, 80-84 year old age group, at the European Veterans’ Athletics Championships in Izmir, Turkey, August 2014. Her time was 18.16secs. Could you beat that?

Wolfgang Reuter, Germany, born 1929


© Alex Rotas

Reuter clears 3.31m to gain gold in the men’s long jump event (85-89 year old age group) at the European Veterans’ Athletics Championships in Izmir, Turkey, August 2014. Reuter also earned gold in the 100m dash, crossing the line in 17.43secs (the world record for this age group is 15.97secs).

Olga Kotelko, Canada, born 1919


© Alex Rotas

Kotelko was thrilled when she turned 95 in early March 2014 and was eligible to compete in her new age group, the 95-99 year category. Already the superstar of the super-seniors, holding 42 gold medals in the 90-94 year old age group and multiple world records, she only took up masters athletics when she was 77. She travelled to Budapest later in the month of her 95th birthday, entered nine events (including long/high/and triple jump), setting world records in seven and inevitably becoming world champion in all nine. In June 2014 she suffered a cranial haemorrhage in her sleep and died 3 days later. She “squared the circle”, it was observed, living life ablaze till her death, with little noticeable decline. She was a fearless competitor and a joyful and inspirational presence on the masters’ circuit. To find out more, check out her website and read her book, published this year, just before her death, Olga: The O.K. Way to a Healthy, Happy Life.

Sheila Champion, Ireland, born 1935


© Alex Rotas

Champion throws for gold in the javelin competition, 75-79 year old age category, in the European Masters Games in Lignano, Italy, September 2011. Sheila has suffered three strokes and now enters throwing events only. After the first stroke, in 1997, she had to teach herself to walk again, “one step at a time”, as she says.


The book Growing Old Competitively: Photographs of Masters Athletes is available from www.alexrotasphotography.com

Photo title: Jhalman Singh, born 1935, competing for Great Britain in the men’s 75-79 year old long jump at the British Open Masters Track and Field Championships, Birmingham, September 2013

Photo credit: © Alex Rotas

  • Lisa Abend

    This article thrilled me! Thank you, Alex Rotas, and thank you, POSITIVE NEWS, for your inspiring work!

  • Fiona

    Yes thank you I am 55 and this article has inspired me to re visualise old age!

  • Annie

    My dad will be 88 in September. He still coaches tennis EVERY day! And when he’s not coaching, he’s devouring coaching videos on YouTube. To challenge himself, he started to teach himself to play with his left hand. He’s mastered forehand and backhand – and is now tackling serving.

  • Alex Rotas (@alexrotas)

    Yes, thank you Positive News for sharing my work and my message. And, thank you Lisa and Fiona, for your lovely comments, and Annie for sharing yet another inspiring story of someone disrupting ageing stereotypes. From what I’m reading and noticing, setting challenges for ourselves, and staying open to learning are key factors in living healthy, longer lives. Your dad sounds wonderful. Send him my very best wishes from a fellow tennis-playing fanatic!

  • Beth

    Age truely is just a number and whose to say a number should stop us from chasing our dreams.
    Everyday we are alive we should be living!

    The people in this story are a great example of that and a true inspiration to everyone young and old!

    Thank you for sharing this story
    We all need a little more postive news in our lives :)

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  • Peter

    I have just qualified as a yoga teacher at the age of 59 and was starting to have doubts about my decision (I was the oldest in my group of students) – had a left it too late ? – the article and pictures reminded me it is never too late – I am once again excited at the prospect of challenging myself and others throughout life!
    Thank you for the positive news/inspiration

  • Alex Rotas (@alexrotas)

    Beth, you are spot on! It was only after meeting and photographing these wonderful people that I was inspired to take up running (in my early 60s) myself. I now do a 5K run pretty much every Saturday morning.

    So Peter, you’re so right too. It really is never too late to challenge ourselves – physically or otherwise.

    Thank you both for your encouragement and feedback.

  • Roadside

    Awesome. Living life.

  • Mary

    Fantastic photos and article. Should be given wide coverage!

  • Simon

    These guys are amazing, so inspiring. Can I share the article on Facebook, cannot see how to?

  • Tom Lawson

    Hi Simon, glad you like the story! If you go to our Facebook page you can share the article from there:

  • daniePN3

    Kudos Mr. Alex Rotas!
    What an inspiration! I salute: Mr. Singh, Ms. Chrimes, Mr. Dahms, Ms. Buerkle, Mr. Reuter, Ms. Kotelko, Ms. Champion! (They are all CHAMPIONS!)
    I’ve immediately posted it on my Facebook pages. Let the world see and be inspired – for the most part it is a CHOICE how we grow old.
    Chronological age is a mere number, biological age is what we see in your pictures, Alex: pure joy and determination and achievement.
    Thank you.

  • Anthony Gispert

    Run Pappy and Nanny Run God Bless

  • See Matt

    i hope i’ve inherited the Buerkle genes!

  • ginadblog

    This is a beautiful and inspiring way to grow. Thank you for your work


    cunts fucck all da oldies in dis crib, seriosluy come to myy gaff ill stab a man, then ill hang a man and leave you in my atic old wrinkly pussy dem tell me ham sandwich aint nice with cheesey knobs, serve will chilled bleech. slit your wrist my dads dead and my mums fat as fuck


    what life mandem

  • I can only join you, in awe for the fantastic and wonderful, inspiring human spirit!!! Chapeau!!

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