This article is part of our series, Tokyo Olympics
When the coronavirus pandemic delayed the Tokyo Olympics until 2021, it disrupted every athlete training for the Games, but one group in particular. For athletes whose window of elite performance was closing, the extra year made qualifying that much more difficult — at least in theory. A few American athletes seem poised to defy that timeline. Many of these decorated athletes compete in track and field, which is set to begin Olympic trials on Friday in Eugene, Oregon. Against historical precedent, these decorated runners have extended their careers deep into their 30s.
Allyson Felix, 35, is attempting a feat with almost no parallel in Olympic history. After winning three medals in the 2016 Rio Olympics, she gave birth to her daughter and returned as a contender to medal in Tokyo. There, according to data from Olympedia, Felix could become the second-oldest sprinter to medal in an individual event.1 Also vying for that mantle is Felix’s biggest competition: Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, 34, who also had a baby after Rio. Fraser-Pryce may be the favorite in the 100-meter after running a 10.63 earlier this month — the fourth-fastest time, unadjusted for wind, in history. (Florence Griffith Joyner owns the three fastest unadjusted times, all run in 1988, when she was 29.)
In the 2016 Olympics, American sprinter Justin Gatlin became the oldest man to win a medal in an individual sprint, earning silver in the 100-meter at 34. The winner of that race, Usain Bolt, retired the following year at age 30. But Gatlin is an Olympic hopeful again at 39, and he’s ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100-meter. He won that race at the 2004 Athens Olympics; dating back to 1900, the first year for which Olympedia has data, no Olympic sprinter has won the same race 16 years apart.2
“I don’t think there’s a secret” to longevity in the sport, Gatlin told Sports Illustrated last year, when he vowed to compete in Tokyo despite the one-year delay. “I’ve just remained open to growing. What I mean by that is, when you’re an older athlete you can become set in your ways. Each year I try to break a bad habit.”
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Neither Gatlin nor Felix can match the feat of Merlene Ottey, who at age 40 won bronze for her performance in the 100-meter race at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and became the oldest medalist in an individual sprint.3 But on the whole, sprinters in recent years have unlocked the ability to prolong their careers. The average age of the gold, silver and bronze medalists in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter races was 26.2 years in 2012 and in 2016, up from 23.8 years in 2008. Excluding the 1996 and 2000 Games where Ottey medaled at 36 and 40, respectively, those averages are record highs.
The track stars’ longevity follows a prolonged trend of athletes staying in top form later in their careers. The average age of all Olympians rose from 25 years in 1988 to almost 27 in 2016, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, with swimmers, gymnasts and long-distance runners among those who have managed to compete longer than conventional wisdom would dictate. The average age of the 15 U.S. sprinters who ran in Rio was 27.1 years, the second-oldest group on record.
While all athletes decline at some point, the aging curve is far from an exact science. Neither Gatlin nor Felix, for instance, have set a personal record in either the 100-meter or 200-meter races since 2015. After Bolt set his world records of 9.58 seconds in the 100-meter and 19.19 seconds in the 200-meter at the 2009 world championships, he never touched those times again. But remaining close to that top form is a realistic goal; though Bolt didn’t match his world-record time in the 100-meter at the 2016 Olympics, he was still strong enough to dust the competition in 9.81 seconds, becoming at age 29 the second-oldest gold medalist in the race.
A 2020 paper in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance illustrated the challenges of pinning down an age of “peak performance” for sprinters. The study found that less than a quarter of elite junior (under age 18) sprinters become elite senior sprinters, and that senior athletes peaked later than their junior counterparts. Predicting sprinters’ careers based on their prior performances is already very difficult; for world-class athletes like Felix and Gatlin, it may be impossible.
For her part, Felix has focused on shortening her schedule to ease the toll on her body. And above all, her resilience will stand out if she qualifies for her fifth Olympics. After severe preeclampsia forced her to undergo an emergency cesarean section in 2018, Felix became a vocal advocate for improved maternal health care and maternity leave policies. Less than a year after giving birth, Felix broke Bolt’s record with her 12th world championship, a gold medal in the 4x400-meter mixed-gender relay. Soon after that, she faced another lapse in competition when the pandemic began. But last month, she turned back the clock with her fastest 400-meter time (50.88) since 2017, another sign that she’s not done yet.
“I’m used to fighting,” she told ESPN last year. “That’s what we’ve been doing. Now we just continue on.”