Comment: Just how old is too old?

Hilary Samuels 7 March 2013

The World Track Cycling Championships in Belarus could not fail to evoke the intense emotions of London 2012, where Britain dominated the cycling events. Although Laura Trott failed to retain her world title in the Omnium, the epic four medals of Becky James (a British record) highlighted the depth of the British cycling team, a point further supported by the recent knighthood of Team GB cycling coach David Brailsford. Perhaps most interesting for Cambridge students, however, was that the average age of the British cyclists at the World Championships was just 22 – undeniably and surprisingly young.

So how important is age in terms of starting a sport? In this case, there are the obvious examples of sports such as women’s gymnastics, in which 19 is considered old and the idea of going to more than one Olympic Games is unlikely. Interestingly, for men’s gymnastics, the age constraint is much less of an issue.

This naturally brings up the media’s role. A young team tends to gain public popularity more quickly, particularly given the Olympic motto ‘Inspire a Generation’. You need look no further than Tom Daley as a clear example of how a young individual can quickly become the face of a sport through media obsession. The idea of a young athlete tends to conjure up the story of an underdog, although Daley’s popularity also highlights the importance of appearances in terms of public support. The media is unlikely to focus on what might be perceived as an unattractive individual as the ‘face’ of the Olympic Games. However, the popularity of Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins, both in their thirties, counters the idea that age influences popularity to some extent, although they could remain the exception.

In contrast to sports such as gymnastics, other athletes can have much more longevity, such as Hoy who has competed in four Olympic Games. Of interest to Cantabrigians, 2012 Olympic Gold Medallist Anna Watkins only started rowing while studying Natural Sciences at Newnham College, having never rowed before. At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Uzbek gymnast Oksana Chusovitina finished fifth in the vault finals at London 2012 at the age of 37. Perhaps even more inspiring, British runner Fauja Singh ran a marathon in 2011 at the age of 100! Clearly, with enough determination (and a bit of luck) age can be overcome to achieve sporting excellence.

The moral of the story? It’s not too late for you. Although age is undeniably significant in a number of sports at the highest level (you may have missed the boat for Olympic gymnastics), numerous sports can still be picked up at a later age. That being said, once you graduate, the opportunities to learn a new sport will almost certainly be more limited. So, I encourage you to get out there and get involved in sports. You are officially not too old.

Hilary Samuels