They may be no spring chickens but they are the masters of their own destiny

Nearly 4,000 athletes have entered the WMA World Indoor Championships in Budapest

One of the Irish athletes competing in Budapest next week is Mickey Linden, Down’s two-time All-Ireland winning footballer, in 1991 and 1994.

One of the Irish athletes competing in Budapest next week is Mickey Linden, Down’s two-time All-Ireland winning footballer, in 1991 and 1994.


A lot of people thought Roy Orbison was blind, but he wasn’t. He wore dark sunglasses on stage one night, early in his career, after losing his regular prescription glasses. The audience loved the look and Orbison did too and the rest is rock ‘n’ roll history.

Those sunglasses stayed with him throughout his career, as did his angelic tearjerker of a voice. It was still perfectly intact when Orbison died of a heart attack in December 1988, two days after his last show, aged just 52. In 1990 he was awarded his fifth Grammy, posthumously, for a live performance of Oh, Pretty Woman – sounding every bit as heavenly as when first recorded 24 years earlier.

It’s not quite as easy when it comes to athletic performance. The greatest certainty in this sport is that both speed and endurance will steadily decline with or before the onset of middle age. With that comes the slow sagging of muscles and skin, and some other body parts too, and no strength and conditioning programme in the world can reverse it. At least not the legal ones. And whether athletes should keep competing into old age has always been a grey area – that pun well intended.

Although try telling that to the nearly 4,000 athletes who have entered the WMA World Indoor Championships, which start in Budapest next Tuesday. The WMA – as in the World Masters Athletics association – was established in 1975, although originally named the WAVA – as in the World Association of Veteran Athletes. (It was later amended to avoid any confusion with survivors of World War II, etc.)

These days, masters athletics is big business: the World Indoor Championships, first staged in 2004, will cater for every age category, in every event – starting with the over-35s, and rising in five-year age groups, up to the over-90s for men, and over-80s for women. Many of those competing won’t be just counting birthdays but the years since their new knee or hip or some other body part was reborn.

Eight seconds
Ireland is sending a team of 44, including two new masters world indoor record holders. Last month, in Athlone, 61 year-old Joe Gough from Waterford ran 2:14.06 for 800 metres, breaking the world indoor record to add to his European record set last year; and Brian Lynch from Dundalk, also running in the over-60s, clocked 4:27.27 for 1,500m, taking eight seconds off the previous world indoor record.

They’re no spring chickens but they’ll be terribly disappointed if they don’t come home with medals, as will Down’s Geraldine Finegan, who last year won gold in the outdoor world championships, in Brazil, in the women’s over-45s heptathlon.

One of the oldest Irish entrants is Ann Woodlock from Dublin, who will run the 1,500m and 3,000m in the women’s over-75s, and one of the youngest is Tim Shiels, entered in the men’s over-35s 800m, and who has already come a long way from sleeping rough in Dublin just a few years ago. Unfortunately Patrick Naughton from Nenagh has withdrawn from the men’s over-80s high jump after breaking his collarbone in a training accident.

What is certain is that no medal in Budapest next week will be easily won. Speed and endurance might wilt with age, but competitive instinct usually stays perfectly intact.

Large team
The Americans are sending a large team, after over 900 athletes competed at their recent national masters indoor championships in Boston, including 100-year old Leland McPhie, who actually is a World War II survivor, and whose career began in the 1930s when he thought himself how to pole vault using a long piece of bamboo.

If anything, masters athletics is attracting an increasing number of competitors. Running Times, one of the last proper magazines in this sport, have dedicated their March issue to a special on masters distance running, and that should significantly boost circulation – that pun also well intended.

They’re coming in from other sports too, including Gaelic Games, one of the Irish athletes competing in Budapest next week being Mickey Linden, Down’s two-time All-Ireland winning footballer, in 1991 and 1994.

Linden won the 60m in the men’s over-50s at last month’s Irish masters indoors in Athlone, and considers himself more athlete now than Gaelic footballer, partly because of the GAA’s decision to no longer recognise the masters of their game.

Six years ago, Croke Park pulled the plug on their masters football and hurling championships, which had run since 1990, and catered not just for retired intercounty players but anyone over the age of 40.

The GAA have cited insurance concerns and fears that a masters competition would only serve an elite number of players, although for the last two years, the competition has still gone ahead unofficially, Galway beating a Tyrone team in last year’s football final that included another of the masters/legends in Peter Canavan.

What must at least partly drive the masters athlete, no matter what the sport, is the idea that we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. George Bernard Shaw said that, and he lived to the ripe old age of 94, body and mind still perfectly intact.