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Old gold - Australia's Olympians getting better with age, study shows

Olympics

The average age of Australia’s Olympians is increasing and they’re not just participating, they’re winning medals.

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Over the seven summer Games staged between 1992 and 2021 the mean age of our male competitors has shifted from 25 to 27, a study into the peak performance age in sport has found. For females competitors, the increase was from 24 to 26 years.

“Tokyo 2020 has confirmed longer-term trends that the typical Olympian is getting older,” University of NSW social demographer Rafal Chomik said.

Researchers also found the average ages of Olympic competitors broadly coincided with those of medal winners.

“We found that older athletes are not just participating, they’re winning,” Chomik said.

“It’s no surprise that Australian equestrian Andrew Hoy has been able to again win a medal at age 62.”

The oldest competitor at this year’s Olympics was 66-year-old Australian equestrian rider, Mary Hanna.

She is the second oldest modern Olympian after Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn, who was 72 when he won silver in 1920 in Antwerp.

Hanna was joined in Tokyo by Hoy, who won team silver and individual bronze at his eighth Olympics over three decades.

Researchers found sports requiring speed, flexibility and high oxygen consumption like swimming had the lowest competitor age.

The average age of men who took to the race pool was 23 years and for women, 22 years.

Tactical and precision sports with lower physical loads like sailing, shooting and equestrian featured the oldest competitors.

The median age for males equestrians was 38 and for females, 35.

The average age across all lower physical load sports was higher still, with 39 years for men and 36 for women.

The study also found the peak age of performance differs significantly across events within a single sport.

Among male swimmers, those competing in the 50m sprint are the oldest, with an average age of 24.

On land, 44-year-old Australian runner Sinead Diver finished in the top 10 for the marathon.

Chomik said athletes competing in sports requiring speed and power like sprinting tended to peak by their mid-20s but in endurance sports, didn’t reach their best until their late 30s and 40s.

“Those in tactical, low impact sports can still compete at elite level at more advanced ages,” he said.

“Young people are better at tasks requiring raw processing power while older people excel at strategy.”

Since its rebirth in 1896, the Olympics have evolved to encompass more than 30 sports with thousands of participants from over 200 countries.

Chomik is a senior research fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research at UNSW.

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