By Nicola Waterworth
Our mission with this blog is to offer some, small adjustment to the coverage of girls and women’s sport in the media. However, we are aware that women’s achievements are not the only ones to go by largely unnoticed by the popular sports media. While paralympians may regularly receive increased attention during the Olympics, outside of this arena sight of these athletes remains limited, as does coverage of anyone achieving in a so-called ‘minority sport’.
But there are sporting endeavours that create even less press than any of the above, and Alex Rotas with her new book feels passionately that this needs to be addressed: the world of the Masters Athlete. For those not familiar with this category, these are athletes competing, many for national teams, over the age of 35. While some of these athletes will still compete at ‘mainstream’ elite events the majority take part at specific Masters Events, in age bands of 5 years, i.e. 35-39, 40-44, and onwards — up to the rarefied 100+ category.
Alex Rotas, focusing in this book on track and field athletes, offers us a celebration of athletes and the process of growing older through photographs, predominantly of athletes between 60 and 90, and small vignettes of their stories. The photographs and stories provide a glimpse into the world of the dedication, talents and achievements of older athletes who are dedicated to competing at a national and international level. These are not feats or individuals that we get to see and celebrate through the mainstream sports coverage, or that we regularly turn up to support.
Rotas, like the athletes involved, undertakes this photography at her own expense and exhibits to raise the profile and awareness of the endeavours of these athletes. As a regular supporter of a cycling Master – track World Champion Glynis Francis – I am familiar with watching dedicated, passionate and skilful athletes compete in a velodrome empty of spectators.
The stories accompanying the photographs present a varied tapestry of women and men, some of whom who have competed all their lives while others have come later to sport in the face of life-changing events including health issues or just the chance trial of a new hobby. The superstar of the super-seniors is the 95 year old Canadian woman athlete Olga Kotleko, with regular world records on the track and field in a host of events.
But what these Masters athletes have in common is their drive and determination to competing at an elite level – and compete they do. As Rotas is quick to point out, these are not bumbling efforts, comparisons with regular elite athletes are inevitable in judging their performances and the differences are not huge.In the 100m sprint it may not surprise that Linford Christie retains the 35-39 year record at 9.97 seconds (shared with Kim Collins) but for men in the 70-74 year bracket the record is 12.77 seconds, only 3 seconds greater than Usain Bolt’s London Olympic gold. Bolt only becomes twice as fast as Masters athletes once we get to the 95-99 year old category, where the record is 20.41 seconds.
While this context is important and Rotas is on a mission to gain more recognition for Masters athletes, the primary purpose of this book is photography, and it is the photos that are truly thought provoking. Initially the images are, if not shocking, definitely unusual and unfamiliar.
Here are people dressed as athletes in vests, shorts and with numbers but they are old and wrinkly, many with no or white hair. But quickly what overrides is that the facial expressions are so familiar – the concentration, elation and even pain are the same expressions we see day in day out on the faces of the younger athletes presented in the mainstream media. The same expressions that make us want to support, idolize and celebrate the endeavours of our Olympians because we believe we are seeing them at their most raw, when they are giving it everything, are here on every page of the book.
Rotas’ photography is beautifully taken, clear and highly skilled at capturing just the right moment, presenting the image that will hold us captivated in that athlete’s story. This allows the photographs to present an entirely different view of aging and what that process means that is truly inspiring. Congratulations to Rotas on her work to challenge our views of ageing and of sports a highly recommended read.
‘Growing Old Competitively: Photographs of Masters Athletes’, is currently available through the author’s website and will shortly be available for purchase through Amazon. Rotas will be exhibiting as part of the West Bristol Arts Trail, 11th & 12th October 2014 and a permanent exhibition of 32 images is on display in the Orthopaedic department at Frenchay Hospital.