Remember last summer, when South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk won 400m gold at the Rio Olympics, breaking Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old record in the process? It made a star not just of Van Niekerk –tipped to fill the Bolt-shaped void in world athletics – but also of Ans Botha, his coach and a 74-year-old great-grandmother.
So unusual is the sight of grey hair in elite athletics that after Van Niekerk’s win, when Botha ran to congratulate him, she was blocked by officials who didn’t believe she was part of the athlete’s entourage.
It’s not surprising, of course; professional sport in general, and athletics in particular, will always be a young person’s game. Its emphasis – on strength, on speed, on agility, on lung capacity – requires fitness levels most of us will never achieve, and that’s partly the appeal of it; outstanding athletic feats can appear miraculous, the athletes themselves almost superhuman.
But The Pacemakers, a new one-off BBC2 programme from director Selah Hennessy, reminds us that sporting success comes in many forms – and that the wider world of athletics is a wonderfully broad church. The film follows four men as they prepare to compete at the 2016 World Masters Athletics Championships in Perth, Australia. The championships are for veteran athletes, over the age of 35; Hennessy’s subjects are all over 90.
There’s Peruvian sprinter Hugo Delgado, who is 92 and wears his shoulder-length grey hair in a ponytail; 91-year-old Dixon Hemphill of the USA, who has run 12 marathons and 16 triathlons; Australian Jim Sinclair, 92, competing on home soil and Delgado’s main rival in the 100m; and the versatile 92-year-old Zhiyong Wang from China, who is taking part in six events.
Also featured in the film is Charles Eugster, who is 97 and insists it’s never too late to start keeping fit – and he would know. He took up bodybuilding in his 80s, and sprinting at 95. Though he’s unable to make the Masters in Perth, he will instead compete at the Indoor Championships in Daegu, South Korea, where he’ll attempt to break the over-95s long jump world record.
And as the programme shows, the veteran athletes have a lot in common with their younger professional counterparts: they have coaches and trainers, wake up early to train, review race footage on their MacBooks, know their rivals’ best times, give interviews to the world’s press.
The only real difference is their motivation, which Eugster succinctly expresses: “I’m running for my life, amongst other things.” Though they all want to win – admittedly some more than others – it’s the simple act of moving, and the purpose competing gives them, that they enjoy. Focus, too, is sharpened by their various struggles – early-stage dementia, lung disease, loneliness – that make their achievements, and their ambitions, all the more impressive.
Sportspeople are often heralded as role models, paragons of discipline and drive who inspire the next generation. But the joy of The Pacemakers is that it offers an example to all of us, not just youngsters or aspiring athletes. Hennessy’s film isn’t really about defying old age; instead it shows us what happens when you stop being afraid – yes, of getting older, but also of starting something new, of trying and failing. Remember: it’s never too late.
By Hannah Shaddock
The Pacemakers is on 8pm Thursday, BBC2