Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D.

Ira Rosofsky Ph.D.

Adventures in Old Age

Sports: 46-Year-Old-Man Brings Home Olympic Gold!

There is a limit to athletic--and scientific--progress.

Posted Feb 17, 2010

Citius, Altius, Fortius

Swifter, higher, stronger is the Olympic motto, and for the past 100 years it has been true.

In 1912, at the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, Arnold Jackson-who was to go on to become in World War I the youngest British general at age 29-won 1500 meter Gold with a time of 3:58.8. It was the only photo-finish of the games. In what has long been called the "greatest race of all time," Jackson edged out the silver and bronze medalists, both from the U.S., in the blink of an eye.

Since then, hundreds of less than world-class athletes have exceeded Jackson's time, including two world-class women. The current world record for the 1500 is more than 30 seconds faster, 3:26.00.

Today, the runners in the greatest race of all time would not even make their own countries' teams, let alone medal.

I'm a psychologist who works in nursing homes, and for my patients, their athletic days are long over-except for lame games that involve throwing around giant beach balls in the recreation room-but I try to remind myself that the institutionalized people I see on a daily basis do not represent the millions of old people outside-the ones competing in triathlons, climbing Mount Whitney, and winning sailing regattas.

In 2007, at Bidwell Park in Chico, California, 102-year-old Elsie McLean teed off on the fourth hole, and exclaimed, "Where's my ball?" It was in the cup for history's oldest hole-in-one.

Since we began keeping records, there has been so much progress in running that the current holder of the 1500m record for male runners over 45 would have handily won gold in 1912 against the 21-year-old Jackson. Jesus Borrego, at age 46 in 2008, set the world record for his age group with a time of 3:52.43, but he would have lost to 40-year-old Jim Sorensen who had a time of 3:44.06. And both would have lost badly to 35-year-old Mike Boit who, back in 1985, would have had half-a-lap on the 1912 field with a time of 3:33.91.

Not only men but women would have brought home gold from Stockholm, 1912. Although in that Olympics women were allowed only to compete in lawn tennis, golf, and swimming, Tatyana Kazankina (3:55.0 in 1980) would have brought home the Silver and Qu Yunxia (3:50.46 in 1993) the Gold.

So that's progress, but the ubiquitous warning about investing applies to sports, "Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results."

Ms. Yunxia set her 1500m record in 1993, and no woman of any age has since surpassed it. Although 46-year-old Mr. Borrego would have heard the Spanish National Anthem in Stockholm, no one older would have joined him on any of the medal podiums. The fastest 50-year-old record is 4:05.0, the fastest 70-year-old is a minute slower than 1912, and someone who was 100 in 2004 sauntered over the finish line in well over 16 minutes.

More striking is the fact that the overall world record for the 1500m was set in 1998, and has not been surpassed since.

I hate to disappoint the human urge towards progress, but athletic achievement may be approaching an end.

Thoroughbred horses and greyhound dogs run no faster than they did 50 and 100 years ago. There is no reason to think that humans will do any better than our four-legged friends.

Humans and horses and dogs have physical limits, and none of us can defy the laws of physics. There will be a limit to the speed at which we can propel our particular configurations of mass, muscle, bone, and metabolism.

The dawn of the modern Olympics was also the dawn of understanding the scientific training for athletic events. That accounts for the great progress in the past 100 years. But now everyone knows and applies that science. It's ten years since the last 1500m world record, and I see no reason to believe that the next 100 years will knock another 30 seconds off the record.

Even in science, there's a limit to what we can know. We are blinded by the progress of the last 300 years, but with Copernicus, we started from close to zero.

It's an insult to what we know about science today to say it will all be supplanted in the future. There will be not be a future Galileo proving the Sun, after all, revolves around the earth.

Four billion years from now the Sun will turn into a red giant, and the Earth will be destroyed, but wherever humans are, E will still equal MC2 , those pants will still make you look fat, and humans won't be running 2-minute 1500s-that is, unless we evolve to look like Secretariat.

Human imagination may be unlimited, but I'll defy Shakespeare to say, "There are fewer things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy."


Click here to read the first chapter of my book, Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare (Avery/Penguin, 2009). It provides a unique, insider's perspective on aging in America. It is an account of my work as a psychologist in nursing homes, the story of caregiving to my frail, elderly parents--all to the accompaniment of ruminations on my own mortality. Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking calls it "A book for policy makers, caregivers, the halt and lame, the upright and unemcumbered: anyone who ever intends to get old."

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