Light The Fire

Photos Courtesy of Bethany McCaslin, Clarksville Parks and Recreation

Early spring brings the sounds of horseshoes clanging on iron stakes from the Swan Lake sandpits, as seniors age 50 and above take aim and throw, flipping the shoes in a steady rhythm, hoping to score a “ringer.” While everyone is a competitor in the pits, with little conversation, they will gather later as friends.

Over at the shuffleboard courts, no one would mistake the sport for a cruise-ship leisure activity. Janet Ramser grips her 6-foot cue stick with grim determination, gazing steely-eyed at the triangular-shaped diagram on the far end of the court. Wham! The last of her four discs blasts her opponent’s disc out of the top 10-point spot to be replaced by Janet’s own. There is no cheering, just a silent, sweet victory.

Horseshoes and shuffleboard are only two of the games offered during the Clarksville Parks and Recreation 50-Plus Olympics held in the third week of May every year in Clarksville, Tenn. The event began 25 years ago in an effort to provide participants an opportunity to practice before competing in the Tennessee District Senior Olympic games. Every year, thousands of seniors compete in district events held across the state in 10 regions. Winners from the districts qualify for the Tennessee Senior Olympic State Finals held each summer. The state final winners then qualify for the National Senior Games held every 2 years. Participants understand that the Clarksville 50-Plus Olympics is a non-qualifying event for the district games, yet the local games give seniors a chance to indulge in some healthy competition in preparation for the district and state levels.

Something For Everyone

The 50-Plus Olympics provides a sport for every athlete: bowling, golf, swimming, disc golf, badminton, Pickleball, table tennis, basketball, and track and field, as well as some activities termed “backyard games.” These include Cornhole, ladder ball, and lawn darts. Of the 26 sports offered during the week, seniors have an opportunity to compete in multiple activities.

Although some games require less athleticism than others, such as horseshoes, bowling, golf, and shuffleboard, all are instrumental in motivating the seniors to get up and enhance their mental and physical capacities. “Old,” of course, is a relative term, yet with age, reflexes slow, muscles become weaker, and energy lags. No one at these games has to worry about being the “star athlete,” or even be concerned about having enough sports experience to participate. And veteran seniors are always willing to assist rookies through their first year.

With the many age groups in the Olympics, several divisions may have only one participant registered in a category. These solo participants then play in an exhibition game, competing with those from different age groups. This not only allows everyone a chance to compete, but also guarantees a gold medal to participants. In sports with multiple athletes, participants are grouped by age, with first-, second- and third-place athletes winning Olympic-style gold, silver, and bronze medals. But it’s not really about winning medals. For most of the seniors, it’s about being active, enjoying the camaraderie that goes with meeting new people, and learning they can accomplish something they never thought possible at their advanced age. While some participants have been active since their school days, many others—especially women who were in school long before the federal law Title IX opened up competitive sports to females in the early 1970s—are competing for the first time, or only compete once a year during the games.

Attention To Details

To kick off this five-day sports event, an opening ceremony is held, consisting of hors d’oeuvres (finger food), a visit from the mayor, a chance to win theme-related door prizes, and individual swag bags containing an event T-shirt and dinner tickets. In the past, attendance at the opening session had been low, so the event team partnered with a local bowling alley to host the ceremony. This worked out well as 95 percent of the swag bags were collected. Thus the bags didn’t have to be transported from site to site, and participants who only competed in a single activity could receive their gift bags.

Each year, the event adopts a theme that is used for the T-shirt design, on registration forms, and on all advertising materials. This theme also sets the décor for the closing ceremony as everyone who attends is encouraged to wear the event-themed garb. At the banquet dinner the mayor and title sponsor present various awards: overall sportsmanship, highest medal count, participation in most games, and the oldest and youngest participants. A live band provides music for dancing. All of this is made possible by a minimal registration fee, as well as by local sponsorship revenue that eliminates using taxpayers’ dollars. The monetary and in-kind partnerships allow for the purchase of needed sports equipment, volunteer stipends, event supplies, snacks provided at each sports site, awards for nearly every participant, items for the athletes’ swag bags, a live band, catered dinner, and decorations for the closing ceremony.

Play To The Audience

While setting up for various events, planners must consider their audience. For example, depending on the time of year, scheduling swimming events at an outdoor pool or early in the morning when the temperatures are still cool would not be a good idea. Additionally, rules and regulations sometimes must be altered to accommodate the stamina of the participants. In disc golf, players perhaps may only play nine holes of an 18-hole course, or the Cornhole boards may be moved closer than the regulation distance. Of course, if the games are to be a qualifier for the state or district competition, the rules must be followed. However, it isn’t uncommon for a senior who intends to compete in qualifying games to measure the height of a badminton net, or the distance of the temporary lines laid out for the Pickleball courts. However, even those seniors who compete for the personal challenge take the games seriously. So getting to know participants and their motivations is an integral part of having a successful event.

Whether it’s a social, a bingo night, or an Olympics, those people considering hosting a senior event should make sure it appeals to the over-50 population. Feed them, give door prizes, and make the event special. But most off all, remember to keep it fun and just a little challenging!

Tina Boysha is the superintendent of athletics for the Clarksville Parks and Recreation Department in Clarksville, Tenn. Reach her at .