The aging of elite performance: “Geriatric champions” and have the rules for getting older changed?

06 Feb 2019 Posted by

Yesterday, I was sent this link. It says that Dwain Chambers, he of THG and a doping ban in 2004 (!), is making a comeback, hoping to qualify for Team GB at the European Indoor Championships. At the age of 40. Well, almost 41.

My first thought was “Of course he is”, and then upon reflection, I thought I’d share today’s Short Thought on Sport about Chambers being one more example of older elite athletes seeming to become more commonplace.

There is a conventional wisdom about aging and elite performance. It’s that Father Time always wins. And of course, that remains true. But it feels to me (and I’m not unaware that I may be suffering from confirmation bias here) like Father Time’s victories are being delayed more than ever before.

It used to be that by the early 30s, pretty much no matter the sport, you were in the sunset of a career, fading out. An Olympic or World champ older than 30 was rare. That no longer seems (again, survivorship bias clause here) to be the case, though I have nothing but a collection of extreme cases to prove it.

Indeed, one reason for this article is to inspire some research – perhaps it’ll trigger you and you’ll feel like investigating and actually putting some data to what is my ‘instinct’ theory. Remember, you must try to disprove me! Let me know if you’re keen and I’ll try to help formulate the questions – ross.tucker@nullmweb.co.za

So…off the top of my head, I can think of the following “oldest evers” (and any minor errors, forgive me, I don’t have time to sift through biographies to be exact!):

Dara Torres swam in and won medals at the Olympics at 41, after a career spanning five Games. I recall that in the lead up to those Games, there was talk of Missy Franklin qualifying at 13, which would have made Torres easily old enough to be her team-mate’s grandmother. In the end, Franklin fell short.

Also in the pool, Anthony Ervin won gold in the same event (50 Free) 16 years apart when he won it in Rio, aged 35. That made him the oldest swimmer ever to win Olympic gold. Michael Phelps, for his part, was 31 when he won five golds and a silver in Rio. Pretty good going for 31 too.

From the pool to the mountains, Chris Horner won the Vuelta at 41, basically 42 (haha).

Then you have Tom Brady, among a few in the NFL, defying age. Pretty soon Brady will line up against quarterbacks who’ve lived fewer years than he’s played post-seasons.

Usain Bolt was 30-something when he won the last of his sprint doubles. That’s kind of old, but not ridiculous. Asafa Powell was breaking 10s regular after 30, including a 9.92s at 34. Certainly not compared to say Justin Gatlin, who kept getting faster into his 30s. And then there’s Kim Collins, who broke 10s at the age of 40.

Mo Farah became the oldest person to win an World 10,000m title in 2015, when he won it in Moscow, aged 32. Then he did it again at 34 in 2017 (word of caution – these stats are often loaded. In this case, it’s because the World Champs only go back to 1983. Yifter, for instance, was likely older when winning the Olympic 10000m title in 1980). It’s like when they say “Burnley haven’t beaten Manchester United is 93 years” or something – yeah, they’ve only played them in 9 of those 93!”. I digress.)

Stepping up in distance, in marathons, just to name a few:

Gebrselassie set the last of his World Records in his 9th elite marathon performance, aged 36.

Wilson Kipsang ran his World Record in his 7th marathon (at 31), then went faster in his 12th marathon, aged 34 (though he was beaten by Bekele that day), and will race his 17th elite marathon in London in April. Time must surely be running out.

Eliud Kipchoge may yet go faster (though I’d be surprised), but his 2:01:39 came at 33, in his 11th marathon, and that’s off a career that started on track at 18 back in 2003.

These are ‘unusual’ in the sense that it used to be thought that you had 4 to 6 marathons at the very highest level, and you’d be bucking the trend if you continued to get faster much beyond those first handful. The pattern of progression from track to marathon in the late 20s meant that ‘peak age’ was always a little on the older side, but not into the mid-30s, and not for dozens of top marathons.

In men’s tennis, you have the ‘big 3‘, who are 37, 32 and 31, and who look likely to win a few more Grand Slams before their ticket is called. On the women’s side, Serena Williams is 37 and still a favourite to win every Slam she plays. And OK, Martina Navratilova won a mixed doubles title at 50, but late 30s in tennis, after careers starting in the teens? That seems unprecedented too.

In football and rugby, I have what is likely a biased perception too, but it seems that careers start at the same age as ever, but go on longer (early retirements like Lambie’s excepted).

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A shift in the longevity axis?

So, what I’m wondering is whether there has been a shift ‘to the right’ in the longevity axis? Are dominant elite athletes able to a) stay at the top longer than ever before, and b) play until they’re older than ever before?

I think these would be interesting questions to answer. If it were confirmed that elite athletes are “aging” compared to the previous three or four generations, you could explore reasons for it. Some hypotheses there would include:

Changing economic imperatives

More money means prolonger earning potential, and thus sticking around longer. If the trend is confirmed in rugby and football, this would likely be a big factor – in the past, by the time you’re 32, 33, you’re on the way out, now, you can earn maybe 200,000 a year playing another two to four years, and that’s a pretty big difference when applied to a 10-year career.

The thing this doesn’t address is how the older player remains competitive – if a pool of elite players is fixed at say, 1000, then for the fifty 34 year olds to occupy those salaried positions requires that fifty 21 year olds are kept out. Unless the pool is expanding? Point is, there’s some interesting economics in play. Same goes for marathons, where the Majors have ramped up the money, and appearance fees plus prize money entice athletes back for more years than perhaps they did in the 1980s or 1990s. Here, though, the performance issue is bigger – you can’t ‘con’ your way to the finish line (OK, you can actually, but that’s a different story). For a 35 year old to continue to break WRs is a different issue to them continuing to make the start line.

Better athlete management – sports science contribution

For all the stick I give sports science sometimes, it is arguably true that we are more aware and more capable of optimizing recovery and athlete health. The collective contribution made by decisions based on better monitoring and measurement, plus nutrition and “legal” recovery methods may make it possible to extend a career for a few years more than before.

Perhaps more effective management and prevention of injuries means the average career gets 2 years longer all by itself. If injuries can be prevented at training level X, then a level of X+Y is possible, before the new threshold is reached. That would favour all athletes, of course, but perhaps older athletes benefit relatively more, having begun with a lower threshold?

Doping

It can’t escape your attention that the stuff that is sold as “fountain of youth” medicine in anti-aging clinics is the same stuff you’ll read about in doping scandals. Testosterone, Growth hormone, IGF – they’re about all about recovery and regeneration. Restoring what age (and stress, of which training is a huge one) take out. Even EPO, when you listen to what the elite athletes say, is not a magic bullet like an amphetamine might be, but it improves the capacity to tolerate heavy training loads, enabling recovery. Whatever goes into recovery goes into anti-aging.

Therefore, it’s not a stretch to suggest that what doping does for a micro-cycle of training (say, 10 days of really high intensity training), and for those mesocycles of two months, might be the same as it does over a period of 10 years. Anti-aging is enhanced performance, and vice-versa, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if smarter, more sophisticated doping has helped extend the careers of at least SOME athletes.

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Maybe it’s all survivorship bias – let’s find proof

Anyway, it’s all speculation. It’s possible that my list above is an all-time classic list of survivor bias. I can think of Gebrselassie, Torres, Federer and Brady pretty easily, but I can’t think of the fifty 24 year olds who haven’t made it (to quote Donald Rumsfeld, we have some “known unknowns”.

And perhaps overall, data would show you that the ratio of old to young is the same as it ever was! Maybe it’s even lower – maybe those economic incentives I mentioned, plus doping, plus better talent ID, have actually shifted the axis to the left, and we see, in general, more younger athletes succeed than ever before.

It’s possible the curve has taken on two ‘humps’, such that we now see more younger athletes than ever, and we see a separate group of older athletes that we didn’t used to. Like a Bactrian camel, in other words!

I wonder if I could write this exact post and instead title it as “Elite athletes are getting younger”, and try to convince you that 21 to 24 year olds are winning more titles today than ever? It wouldn’t be true in tennis, for sure, but maybe in other sports? An interesting hypothetical.

Point is, the above is my initial observation, and every time a story like Chambers pops up, or Brady, or Federer, and the media talk glowingly about longevity, I wonder what forces are in play, and is it real?

So that’s my hypothesis – it would be fun to study. We could look at the average age of Olympic medals across twenty events. We could look at the 95th percentile for age in professional team sports, and how many statistical outliers there are, both young and old, as a proportion of the playing population. There’s lots to it, so many ways to find interesting insights.

So if you’re keen, and have some time, I’ll guide the thinking and help with analysis – ross.tucker@nullmweb.co.za

Ross

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