But a number: Older Olympians have staying power at 2022 Games

Alexander Bushroe
The number of participating athletes in Beijing over the age of 35 has soared to over 140 in total with several of them aged 40 and above.
Alexander Bushroe

It's a time-honored maxim that "age is nothing but a number." We hear this phrase used in many contexts; in reference to someone older related to new trends in society, when discussing a young person who is wise beyond their years, or perhaps when discussing a romantic relationship where one partner has a few years on the other.

It is, however, much rarer to hear this adage used in the realm of sport. After all, age, whilst certainly quantified using a number, is really just a measurement of time, a universal principle that affects the human body. No one is immune.

The physical demands of competing in most sports create a natural barrier to competing at an advanced age. Muscles atrophy more quickly, and the rate of gains slows. Metabolism decreases, joints and ligaments weaken, and recovery periods are lengthened.

However, many athletes in the modern era have discovered methods to preserve their athleticism and lengthen the lifespan of their sporting careers. Be it exercise routines, specialized diets, enhanced recovery practices, or otherwise, sportsmen and women are competing at ages nearly unheard of in their fields decades ago.

This year's Winter Olympics is an outstanding example of this phenomenon. The number of participating athletes in Beijing over the age of 35 has soared to over 140 in total with several of them aged 40 and above. Many of these entrants are not just competing but earning medals and other accolades; some have even broken Olympic records. They are competing in sports and disciplines across the spectrum of the Winter Games.

Let's take a look at some of the athletes who have yet to relinquish their place in the Olympic spotlight.

France's Johan Clarey is a stalwart on the country's alpine skiing team. Debuting at the Alpine Ski World Cup in 2003, Clarey has entered his 20th year on the professional skiing circuit. Last year, at age 40, He became the oldest-ever alpine skier to finish in the top three at a World Cup event, and this year in Beijing, Clarey, aged 41, earned a silver medal, finishing second in the downhill skiing race.

But a number: Older Olympians have staying power at 2022 Games

Johan Clarey, 41, wins a silver medal in the downhill skiing race at Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

It is his first-ever Olympic medal in his fifth appearance at the Winter Games, and he is the oldest Olympian to receive a medal at this year's event so far.

Of all sports at Beijing 2022, the highest number of athletes at or over the age of 35 are playing ice hockey, with 27 in total. The National Hockey League's decision to disallow its contracted players from participating in this year's games due to internal concerns about COVID-19 in their home countries has forced many nations to cobble together squads from their remaining player pools.

Because of this, many players who are of advanced age (in ice hockey terms) have been included on their countries' teams. The Canadian team alone has six players aged 35 or older.

The oldest hockey player, though, is unaffected by this situation. Japan's Hanae Kubo, age 39, is a professional player in the country's women's ice hockey league and a member of the Japanese women's squad in Beijing. This distinguishes her as the oldest participant in the sport of ice hockey at the Games this year.

Two snowboarders from the United States, Lindsey Jacobellis and Nick Baumgartner, also made history in their sport. On February 9, Jacobellis earned a gold medal in the women's snowboard cross event. At age 36, this made her the oldest female athlete in her country's history to earn Olympic gold at the Winter Games. Three days later, she scored another gold in tandem with Baumgartner in the mixed team version of the same event. Baumgartner, age 40, became the oldest snowboarder of either gender to win an Olympic medal of any kind.

But a number: Older Olympians have staying power at 2022 Games

Gold medalists Lindsey Jacobellis (left), 36, and Nick Baumgartner, 40, from the USA pose on the podium during the snowboard mixed team cross victory ceremony at the Zhangjiakou Medals Plaza on February 12.

Of all the Winter Games sports, curling is perhaps the event in which the participants have the most longevity in terms of their ability to continue playing into advanced age. However, the game does require physicality and precise skill and touch to compete at the highest level. Torger Norgaard of Norway, though, pays no heed to any obstacle in his path. At 47, he is competing in the Winter Games for the sixth time. He even participated in prior Olympics with the father of one of his 2022 teammates.

The oldest competitor in Beijing at this year's Games, however, is Germany's Claudia Pechstein. A speed skater, Pechstein will celebrate her 50th birthday two days after the closing ceremony of the Olympics this year. With five Olympic golds and nine medals in total to her name, she was the most decorated speed skater of either gender in Olympic history until another skater, Ireen Wüst of the Netherlands, surpassed her total.

Wüst's story is impressive in its own right, as at age 35 she set the all-time Olympic record in the 1,500-meter women's event at the Ice Ribbon in Beijing last week, earning gold in the process.

Pechstein is competing in the Winter Games for an astonishing eighth time, only the second person to ever do so, and is the oldest woman ever to compete in the Winter Olympics. Though unable to match her previous successes and appearances atop the podium, her ability to participate in the Games just shy of the age of fifty is an impressive achievement, indeed.

Many participants in this year's games have not let a mere numeral hold them back. Given the continuing advances in medical and rehabilitative technology, this trend is sure to continue in the years to come.

But a number: Older Olympians have staying power at 2022 Games

Germany's Claudia Pechstein, 50, an Olympic record holder, gestures after competing in the women's speed skating 3,000m event during the Beijing 2022 at the National Speed Skating Oval on February 5.

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