Senior Olympics Grows From Few To 5,200 At This Year's Competition

July 07, 1991|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,Staff writer

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As the senior citizen jogged around the track, the words adorning his shirt came into view: "Life is movement; Let's get moving."

Thatserved as an unofficial motto for the 5,200 seniors competing in theU.S. National Senior Sports Classic -- better known as the National Senior Olympics -- here last week. The same thought was certainly on the minds of the 2,800 athletes who took part in the first senior-oriented Olympic-style games in Los Angeles in 1969.

In the 1960s, sports like tennis, golf, cycling and jogging begandrawing seniors out of their sedentary lifestyles. Many older Americans wanted to compete, too, but they were overshadowed by younger, faster athletes.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, the Senior Olympicmovement boomed all across the country giving older athletes a chance to compete against their peers. By 1990, state and local Senior Olympic games drew nearly 100,000 competitors nationwide. More than 70 cities sponsored senior games for people 55 years and older.

The Senior Olympic movement spread to Maryland in 1979 when a volunteer organization was started within the Maryland Office on Aging to plan a statewide games. Headed by Robert G. Zeigler, then a member of the Fitness Commission and a professor of physical education at Towson StateUniversity, the organization selected Towson State as its site because of its central location and adequate sports facilities.

The first Maryland Senior Olympics drew in 1980 about 300 competitors. Ten years later, more than 1,400 competed. Harford County participation has grown from two in the first games to 49 in 1990.

In the mid-80s organizers of various state and local games across the country joinedforced to organize an official national competition. Out of those meetings came the U.S. National Senior Sports Organization (USNSO), a non-profit group that puts on the national games.

Since its start four years ago, the USNSO has lined up national and local sponsors to help shoulder the financial burden of putting on the games. National sponsors for this year's games included such big hitters as Holiday Inn, McDonald's, AT&T, General Mills and TWA.

The first National Senior Olympics were held in 1987 in St. Louis, which is now home for the USNSO.

Last summer, the national senior games were officially recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee and became known as the U.S. National Senior Sports Classic -- the Senior Olympics.

Over the years, the national games have grown steadily. About 2,800 competitors attended the first games in St. Louis. The second games drew 3,400. This year, USNSO officials expected close to 5,000 athletes. The finaltally was more than 5,200.

The Syracuse games included athletes from 47 states and Ontario, Canada. In 1989, athletes from England andTaiwan competed.

Competition is divided into six age groups -- 55-59, 60-64, 65-79, 70-74, 80-84 and 85-and-older. The top three finishers in each sport win gold, silver or bronze medals. The medalists on the state level advance to the national games.

On the national level, athletes have 17 sports to choose from with the triathlon and three-on-three basketball new this year.

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