Light The Torch

It is often said that an investment in our children is an investment in the future; in many respects the same can be said for our senior population. With today’s seniors’ life expectancy growing every year, this demographic is a solid slice of the recreation and leisure pie. Senior Games has been one constant–locally, regionally and nationally–in which seniors have had the opportunity to stay active and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

While the benefits to the senior population are numerous, this activity is also an opportunity during these unsteady financial times for parks departments to rediscover and embrace the 50-plus community.

A Brief History

What exactly is the Senior Games? It is a collection of Olympic-style events, ranging from swimming to track and field, open to athletes 50 years and older. The games incorporate many non-traditional Olympic sports, such as darts, croquet, pickleball and bridge. (Although at the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris, croquet was an official event. The French swept all three events; interestingly, nine of the 10 competitors were from France.)

The regional and state games vary on the number of traditional/non-traditional Olympic sports that are offered, while the national games are set at 18 events. Just as in the Olympics, records are set, as well as medals given to the top three finishers in an event.

The games originated over 30 years ago. The first state event was held in Illinois in 1977, and the first national Senior Games was held in 1987 in St. Louis, Mo. Contests are held throughout the United States, from Hawaii and Alaska to Maine and Florida. Regional and state events act as qualifiers for the National Senior Games, held every other year. San Francisco is the site for the 2009 National Senior Games.

How the games are organized and operate varies from state to state. Some are managed by parks and recreation departments, while others are coordinated by sports management companies or nonprofit groups. What is universal among the organizations is the benefit to the senior population. Noting the multitude of local competitions, states like Florida brought them together under one standardized umbrella in the 1980s. This gave Floridians a more consistent and regulated set of qualifiers for the state and national games.

A Swelling Population

Participation has increased steadily over the years at the state and national levels. Regional and state games tend to see their numbers fluctuate, as more athletes participate in years when National Senior Games are held. National Games have seen an increase from 2,500 athletes in 1987 to 12,100 in 2007. Likewise, at the state level, Florida has watched its numbers grow–from 712 in 1992 to 2,062 in 2006.

The future is bright for the games as even more baby boomers enter the playing field. Mark Zeug, chairman of the board of the National Senior Games Association, says, “The involvement of the baby boomers in fitness trends over the past two decades should increase demand for events like the National Senior Games … but it will depend as much on our own ability to meet their needs. Many boomers have yet to concede that they are seniors, but as they become more involved in their senior activities, I think they also will become more involved in events and activities like Senior Games.”

Athletes participating in the event can be, relatively speaking, divided into two categories. The first type of athlete taking part in Senior Games is a competitive, goal-oriented person. These events are used as an avenue to release this still-active drive inside. Most often this type of athlete prepares for the games year-round or has some regular training regimen.

The second type of athlete participates because he or she wants to remain active. The events are more of a recreational and social release than a competition. These athletes see the games as another device in maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. Whatever the reason, the results of participation are positive on many fronts.

Healthy Advantages

The benefits of participation are numerous, no matter the level of competition or the ability of the individual athlete. Allyson Burke of the Connecticut Sports Management Group (organizers of the Connecticut Senior Games since 2002) says, “The benefits of regular activity and staying in shape to compete are endless. Regular exercise can cut down on the risks of such diseases as cardiovascular, stroke, and cancer. Exercise can alleviate symptoms of aging and in some cases even reverse the aging process.”

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