I was quite taken yesterday by this clip of 91-year-old Canadian athlete Olga Kotelko. I love the way expectations are challenged by seeing white-haired old ladies doing things you don’t really expect white-haired old ladies to be doing – running, jumping, throwing hammers, hugging each other in a celebratory fashion. Why does society assume sport is only for the young, or at least, the not-old? Olga is clearly remarkable in her achievements, but there are plenty of older people out there being far more active than the commonly-held beliefs might lead you to think, when we are largely inclined to view “the ageing population” en masse as a burden, unable to contribute to or participate in society. Admittedly, old age tends to be accompanied by physical and/or mental decline to a greater or lesser extent, but nonetheless many people do remain remarkably healthy mentally, physically or both.
I also like the way Olga says people keep asking her what her secret is and she says she doesn’t really have one, she just carries on from day to day. It seems to me that whenever someone over a certain age achieves, well, anything really, including continuing to exist after a certain point on the calendar, people always want – understandably I suppose – to know what their “secret” is. You see it in the paper, when there is an amazed piece about someone becoming a centenarian or running a marathon in their 80s or whatever, and usually it’s obvious that the person in question doesn’t really know how to answer. Because there probably isn’t one, really. Good genes tend to help, as may particular lifestyle choices, and avoiding being run over by a bus is generally a good tactic to employ, but none of those things are exactly well-kept secrets.
My lovely nana, Elsie, who died in 2009, two weeks short of her 102nd birthday, used to get quite embarrassed when people asked her what her secret was, because she never knew what to say. She wasn’t exactly an athlete, given that pie-making (she spent many years working in a bakery), tea-drinking and telly-watching never became Olympic sports, though she did pride herself on her ability to touch her toes when many people 20 years her junior could barely get out of a chair. Admittedly her toes weren’t very far down, as she was well under 5 feet tall in her later years. But anyway, she herself didn’t know what the secret of her long and mainly very healthy life was. Rather like Olga Kotelko, although less dramatically, the only thing she knew how to do was keep on keepin’ on*. It took her strong heart three days to finally give up on life after suffering a heart attack, and she died the way she’d always said she wanted – during the night in her own bed, her family (my mum and I) around her.
Age is a number, it doesn't have to define you.
*with apologies to Zimmerman, R.