The spirit is always willing, but the flesh sometimes weak, in the world's largest athletics event for the over-55s. PETER DUNN reports from the Senior Olympic Games in St Louis, Missouri.
19 August 1989
Peter Dunn

77-year-old John S Phillips Senior has spent some 60 years in the saddle

Joe Diroff, who is probably America’s only male cheer-leader and certainly, at 67, its oldest, is known in Detroit's sporting circles as The Brow. A small, dynamic man, he derives his nickname from the unbroken, bushy eyebrow which crosses his forehead in a single span. Like the white fishing hat stuffed on the back of his head, it is a familiar trademark to fans of the Detroit Pistons basketball team, the baseball Tigers, the footballing Lions and the ice hockey Redwings. He uses few other props apart from a plastic banana ("to drive ‘em bananas”) and a small bicycle pump ("to pump up the team").

I met The Brow during the second biennial United States Senior Olympic Games held on the humid campus of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. With 3,500 wobbly but iron-willed competitors, the games president, Harris Frank, had described the six-day clash of over-55s as "the largest senior athletic event ever staged in the world".

Pool veterans Geraldine Turner, 78, Anne Walker, 73, and Effie June Gillespi, 82 years old.

On your marks… starter Brian McCue in front of the empty stands.

The Brow was there as a member of the team from Michigan - one of 43 states taking part - to support his brother Bernard, 66, a tennis competitor, and to promote the cause of male cheer-leading. Egged on by Bernie, he had been prevailed upon to demonstrate his technique in the university's cafeteria - crowded at the time with senior athletes in youthful sports strip drinking decaffeinated coffee.

"Strawberry shortcake, gooseberry pie," The Brow bellowed over the hubbub.

"Can we do it? Yes. Yes. YES."

When he sat down, amid somewhat startled applause, he was shaking with surplus adrenalin.

"I was a schoolteacher," he explained. "When I retired I thought you hit a rocking chair, or you went fishing. Maybe you went travelling if you could afford it, which I couldn't. I conducted myself that way for two years and it was driving me crazy. So in 1983, I finally put in a word upstairs with the coach and I said 'God, please let me know what talent you've given me that I could use to help people,' and, do you know, almost immediately I was on the floor with the Pistons team in Detroit. It's amazing what's happened."

Joe Diroff's ideas about growing old usefully encapsulated the spirit of the Senior Olympics and the fading generation of gaudily clad old-timers gathered in St Louis. They wore blue T-shirts which said "Come Out and Play" and long, checked shorts hanging, half-empty, to their gristly, tanned knees. Many of them, regardless of the official Olympics hype about health, smoked like chimneys. They were neighbourly, thrifty and said "Howdy" to perfect strangers.

82-year-old Ed Benham sails home in the 1500 metres.

Dr Susie Kniermin, gerontology coordinator at Slippery Rock University, Pennsylvania, and a member of the Senior Olympics board, said, "They're very patriotic people. Many of them were born in the Depression. They're World War II survivors and have a very strong work ethic. They believe in God, country and home. They're a proud group of people, just absolutely fantastic to work with."

Many had evidently taken up athletics at community and state level, the ladder to the St Louis Olympics, because of a spouse's death or a bruising divorce. Disappointment and loneliness had made them tough and self-reliant. Thelma "Tybie" Sommer, a garrulous 65-year-old table tennis champion who wore the silver medal she won in the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1948, said her husband had left her after 35 years of marriage. "He'd had a violent change of personality and I had to find a way of making my own living. I sold stock options for four years. I was knocked off my little cycle by a truck which is why I wear leg supporters. I want people to know that no one hands you anything."

Champion sprinter Polly Clarke, aged 78.

Yoga teacher Catherine Cress, 79, limbers up with a fellow competitor.

Tony Quici, 64, a retired air force master sergeant who cycled 1,050 miles to St Louis from Roswell, New Mexico, has been through two divorces. Crag-faced and with a physique of walnut sculpted by years of headwinds, Mr Quid's pursuit of horizons epitomised the assiduously fostered spirit of the pensioners' Olympics.

"I run 60, 80, 120 miles a month," he said. "Then I do aerobics, a bit of weight work and then I bike 600-800 miles a month. I got a total of 140,000 miles biking. Last March I crossed the state of Texas in eight days. My long-range plans are to do a bike-round-the-world tour."

Despite the enthusiasm of the participants, the Senior Olympics attracted little attention from the American media. Newspapers and television stations were notable by their absence, and there were only a few spectators in the viewing stands. "Some people," said Dr Kniermin, "and I suppose that includes the media, are afraid of older people simply because they see themselves in the future and they don't want to be that way."

Harris Frank, however, is relentlessly up-beat, expecting at least 4,000 competitors for the next games at Syracuse, New York State, in 1991. "Some young sports reporter might come here and see a bunch of old people running around in bloomers," he said. "Okay, we can't run as fast any more or jump as high, but on a relative basis it just blows your mind what we can do. We've pole vaulters, 60 years old, doing 13-14ft. It wouldn't win the Olympics but it would certainly beat some of the guys from Washington University. "We've 65 member games around the States that belong to this national organisation. There's 200,000 seniors involved in Florida alone. My judgement is that in the whole country we impact one and a half million people."

Figures like these have enabled Senior Olympics officials to take their games to the market place and collect sponsors. The million dollars they raised this year, notably from Holiday Inns, TWA and the makers of All Bran, breakfast cereal, has caused an unseemly row with the official United States Olympic Committee. Fearful that the old folk's Olympics will jeopardise its own fund-raising (estimated at $200 million every four budget years), USOC has told the senior athletic event to drop the name Olympics (it owns the copyright in America) from the next national games in Syracuse. Senior leaders are worried that this will deter its own sponsors and are hoping that pensioners' letters to congressmen, hinting that USOC is run by grasping granny-bashers, will lead to a change of heart.

With the Senior Olympics securely rooted now in the United States, Harris Frank talks expansively about old-timers' athletics going global. "England, France, Germany, our aims are to get this movement all over the world," he says. "After all, seniors are seniors wherever they are." Mr Frank had not, at that point, consulted the Critchleys of Paignton in Devon who, apart from Mr Ling of Taiwan ("known to President Carter"), were the only competitors from overseas.

Jack, 61, a miner originally from Wigan and his wife, Margaret, 59, have lived in Devon for 35 years, and they now run a small holiday camp. They were at St Louis running, swimming and long-jumping for Florida, having qualified for the state team while on holiday there last year.

The Critchleys' joy at Margaret's success in the Senior Olympics - she came sixth in the 1500m race walk - was clouded only by their failure to get a similar event going in the UK. British pensioners, it seems, are not ready to put on little coloured shorts and throw javelins.

"There's so much apathy amongst the older people in England," Mrs Critchley said. "I think they just want to vegetate."

Runners Jack Greenwald (left) and Gene Hart (right) are a youthful 61 and 63 respectively.

Social occasions such as the Zoo Dance provide an opportunity for less strenuous activity.

Discus-thrower Harold Tschant; 78 years old.