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.”

Besides the many physical rewards of participation, the games also offer a social network for seniors. Very often athletes develop long-lasting relationships within their town or even across the county. Partners, teams and clubs are developed regularly from the Senior Games. I have often heard from athletes that one of the reasons they participate is to reconnect with competitors and friends from previous years. I have found that participants tend to spend more time before and after the events socializing than actually engaging in the activities.

Lastly, the games improve the mental well-being of the athletes. Deanna Clifford, with the Ohio Senior Olympics, says that “competing gives athletes something to strive for that keeps them physically and mentally active.” In some respects, the games could be called the complete workout for seniors: mind, body and spirit. Truly these contests can be and are so much more than an athletic event.

The benefits are not to be had by seniors alone. By committing time, money and energy to the games, organizations can expect to see a return on their investment. Today’s seniors are more active than they have ever been and additionally have more discretionary money to spend on recreational endeavors. Senior Games can be a stepping stone by which an organization can encourage more senior athletic activities, and generate additional revenue.

Unlike the school-age demographic, seniors have no real time constraints on when they can or cannot participate in an activity. Also, seniors are well-equipped, knowledgeable and more than eager to volunteer their services and time. They are great at reducing the overhead of running a program, and consequently add instant credibility to the activity.

Another item to consider is the economic impact an event like Senior Games has on a community. The better supported, operated and attended the events are, the more the money is pumped into a city or county. Many times seniors travel from city to city and state to state to participate in the games. These same seniors need places to stay and food to eat, at times making a considerable contribution to the local economy.

Beyond The Athletes

What captivates the public and draws people to Senior Games are the intangible stories beyond the races and medals, such as one I witnessed first-hand. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, I started checking in participants for a 5K run. Before the race began, a familiar face in the crowd said hello. I say familiar, for this woman and her husband had already participated in nearly every event they could physically enter. If one did not enter an event he or she would cheer and support the other.

Margaret seemed especially anxious as she prepared for the race. Her support and cheering section was strangely absent, and when I inquired, it was as if a little girl stood in front of me, waiting to describe all the toys she was to receive for Christmas. She explained that her husband was to arrive shortly with her mother. After her father died, her mother had not been out of the house for over four years. After several months of their encouragement and planning, her mother was coming out of a self-induced exile. Coming to see her daughter compete broke the shackles. As Margaret’s tears fell, it was quite apparent this was more than a race. It was of no consequence that Margret raced without competition in her age group or that the event consisted of only 18 participants.

Her mother beamed as she watched her child cross the line and receive a medal. This is but one example of the enormous value--beyond dollars and cents--that Senior Games has for our communities.

Overcoming Obstacles

What are the biggest challenges facing Senior Games? Zeug says there are two:

Finding the resources to expand programs to reach the millions of seniors who are not now physically active.

Developing a truly sustainable nationwide program that encourages seniors to get involved and stay involved in physical activity.

A third challenge facing Senior Games comes from the numerous budgetary issues facing municipalities. When departments are asked to cut from an already tight budget, many times programs like Senior Games are considered. A large amount of time, volunteers and staff are needed to operate this type of event safely and efficiently.

When I recently sat down with Stephen Rodriguez of the Florida Sports Foundation, current organizers of the Florida State Senior Games, he had the same sentiment: “Since the majority of the Local Senior Games in Florida are operated by parks and recreation departments, our most immediate challenge is facing us right now.

With recent budget cuts in many municipalities, there has been a major concern that many of these programs may be cut. The future of our local Senior Games is the future of the Senior Games movement in Florida.” This serious challenge can be found from Arizona to Florida. In an effort to save their local competitions, some organizers working with competitors, local businesses and champions of the games now seek to privately operate and fund the events. It is evident our current and future senior population depends on what actions we take today to further establish and develop Senior Games.

It is apparent the value Senior Games has for our communities and for the health of the senior population. With some games facing large governmental budget shortfalls, the games more than ever need the support of the people and communities they serve. Investing in our senior population is not only the correct social thing to do but one that will always return more than expected. I think Margaret would attest to that.

Steve Yeskulsky is a CPRP currently working in the parks and recreation industry in Sarasota, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at