Elderly athletes defy age stigma

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

Fed up with the depressing imagery surrounding ageing, 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

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