In March 2019 (last month at the time of writing) I went to Torun, Poland, to photograph the 2019 World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships. It takes me a while to process both my photos and my emotions after intense weeks such as this. Both processes are under way now. In terms of my emotions, what I’m overwhelmingly left with is a feeling of warmth. As I try to unravel the source of this warmth, I’m finding that community is the word that keeps coming to mind.
Everything was under one roof in Torun, unlike at the outdoor championships where multiple venues are often used, so it felt like you were in a literal and figurative bubble. This was a bubble you entered and left as you came in and out of the stadium. So everyone was there too – either competing or watching (or officiating or offering medical services or volunteering or serving food or indeed photographing).
It was impossible to walk anywhere ‘alone’. I’ve been photographing masters athletes now for some nine years so by now I’m getting to be part of the furniture. And the friends I’ve made along the way were, in that bubble of a stadium in Torun, everywhere.
I remember when I first started photographing these events, how struck I was by the camaraderie between the athletes which seemed to be as important to them as the competition itself. Or rather, this camaraderie was an integral part of the competition. You’re lining up waiting for your turn in the long jump (or triple/high jump, or pole vault, or pentathlon or whatever your event is)? Well, of course you’re supporting, chatting and laughing with your fellow competitors, your friends. You’ve all just crossed the finish line or your event is over? You absolutely need to line up, arms around each other’s shoulders, for a pic – not just an ‘official’ one but on all of your mobile phones too.
But now, I’m part of it too, lapping up the friendship and warmth as much as anyone. These have become my buddies: the athletes, their families, the officials, my fellow-photographers. What’s not to love about that? The camaraderie I once only observed? I’m feeling it now myself. No wonder I’ve come home feeling happy.
But it’s more than ‘just’ being with a group of buddies. This is community. Let’s see if I can give you some highlights so you get a taste.
The women’s 3000m races took place early on in the week. That’s 15 times round the 200m track. In the women’s 65-69 year old age group, take a look at Barbara Tukendorf from Poland as she crosses the line. Did she win and get gold? Well, you could say she got her own gold and she certainly was a winner. But actually she came last. So much last that she finished almost 6 minutes after the competitor before her. That’s a long time to run round a packed stadium on your own, let me tell you.
I was so happy to capture her joy as she finished. I posted it on my Facebook page and asked for comments on a debate that’s doing the rounds in masters athletics. Two things are happening: one is that at the elite end, athletes are getting faster and records are constantly being broken. The other is that at the other end, more and more people are taking up athletics, especially running, and coming into competition for the first time. So you’re getting slower speeds too, as well as faster ones. That means there’s often a big gap between the fastest and slowest, or the heights people can jump, and so on, in all the events.
I put the question out: should these world championships become elite events, showcasing the elite athletes who train like Olympians, into their 90s, and precluding the novices? Or should they continue to grow and represent the growth in popularity of sport and physical activity generally, and welcome all-comers? What did people think? I’m a non-athlete so I don’t really have a view.
What blew me away in reading what people thought – and they responded in large numbers – was both the content and the generosity of what they said and how you couldn’t help feeling that this was a real, heart-warming, flesh-and-blood community, well attuned to the ups and downs of life as well as the ups and downs of sport. The post must have hit a nerve: 5.25K people engaged with it, there were 111 comments and 23 shares. I say that not to blow my own trumpet but to emphasise the interest amongst fellow athletes, because that’s who almost all the comments were from. And what they overwhelmingly wanted was to keep the events inclusive, even though this meant slowing down the proceedings and watering down, in terms of athletic ability, the overall standard. And if some of them trained like Olympians, well they still welcomed sharing the track and the field with those who didn’t.
Here’s one comment that I think sums up the attitude:
“Keep these meets open! As we age we are increasingly aware of all the health issues and other crap we humans must endure. I toe the line, you toe the line. We finish as winners in our own battle.”
This comment was particularly pertinent because Barbara herself pitched in to tell us that she’d endured “open heart surgery, serious leg surgery and depression” so this was indeed her triumph and boy, was she ever a winner.
Here was another:
I was photographing the men’s 80+ long jump event. That meant that everyone over 80 was competing even though the medals would go our according to the age group each individual belonged to. The oldest – and only – competitor in the 95+ age group was Penttila Pekka from Finland, who managed an impressive jump of 1.80m. But for the moment, just notice, if you would, the smiling woman walking forwards ‘under’ his left hand.
She was clearly accompanying him. Every time he made his jump, she’d approach the sand so they could walk back to the benches together, waiting for his next round. They did this companionably with their arms around each other’s shoulders. I assumed she was his daughter.
Turned out she wasn’t. Turned out she wasn’t related to him at all. She’s an elite Finnish Masters Athlete in her own right called Marja Metsankyla, competing in the W65 events. She’d encouraged Pekka to enter the World Championships when he turned 95 (which he just did), and given he had no family who could accompany him, she asked him if she could have that honour.
He had a great meet. As well as a clutch of gold medals, he broke the men’s world record in the 95-99 year old age group in the 60m dash, crossing the line in 14.09secs. Pretty impressive, huh? I caught up with the two of them later in the championships and Marja let me know more about her story.
She told me that her father died when he was 60. He loved sport and, had he been alive, she said, he would have been 97 now. He would have loved to have been at the world championships in Poland, and I would have loved to have brought him, she said. So I couldn’t do it for my own daddy. But I can do it for Pekka.
See what I mean about community? I wonder how many of us would do what Marja did. Accompanying him to Poland him and supporting him each day was both a privilege but also quite a responsibility. Pekka is an impressive athlete but both his hearing and his vision are very poor.
(But then everyone pitches in: I heard one of the judges – all IAAF world-class judges and all volunteers – ask her colleague when she was taking Pekka’s group from the call-room onto the track for the sprint event, “so which one is the gentleman who can’t hear?”. She wanted to be absolutely sure she communicated with everyone fairly.)
Have a look at India’s Gurdev Singh, seen here competing in the men’s 80-84 year old long jump event. There’s a link to Pentila Pekka and this wonderful community I keep talking about. Just a bit of an aside, but imagine, if you can, that you’re in your 80s competing in an athletics competition and your mum is there watching you. Pretty hard, isn’t it? Well Gardev SIngh’s mum was there. Though in fact she wasn’t actually watching him because she was busy competing in the women’s shot put event, 100-104 year old age group, in another building at the same time. More about her in a moment, but for now I digress.
I wasn’t thinking about Singh’s mother when I was photographing him. I hadn’t made the connection between him and Man Saur, who, at 103, was the oldest competitor present and we were all very much aware of her. I was just appreciating his calm approach to competition. Most of the time he seemed to be running and jumping with his eyes closed. I was enjoying trying to photograph him and to capture a little of the serenity that seemed to encapsulate him.
I said before that all the 80+ age groups were competing together here. This meant that 95 year old Pekka Penttila took his turn in the same group. I noticed Gurdev SIngh approach Pentilla at one point, just after he’d made his jump. They were just a few feet away from me. SIngh stood in front of him and looked him in the eye. Then he bent down and touched Pekka’s left foot with his hand. Then he stood up, looked at him again, and put his hands together as in prayer, in a gesture of respect. Then he bowed. Namaste. And then he turned away.
It all happened too quickly for me to catch with my camera. I was so moved however when I realised what was going on. There was another photographer sitting close by, a young woman working for the official commercial event photographers. She didn’t ‘catch’ it either. But it was nice to have someone else there to share the sweetness of the moment with as well as the palpable intercultural as well as intergenerational respect of these championships.
Just a word about Man Kaur now. She was the sole competitor in the 100-104 year old age group. And as she was the only one in this age group competing in the 60m sprint (not surprisingly) she ran against all the women’s age groups over 85.
These events are run strictly under international IAAF rules and no concessions are made for age (apart from hurdle heights). And when it comes to the start, these rules are very strict. The line must not be crossed, by a toe or a fingernail. That’s a little tricky for a 103 year old. So the only ‘concession’ that was made for her was that one of the officials stood with her (again there’s that solidarity of community), having lined her up with precision accuracy, to gently make sure she didn’t inadvertently contravene these rules before the gun went.
I think you can see the joy on Man Kaur’s face at the start. She really does love competing. Immediately after this race, which she won – well, obviously, as she was the only one – she had the javelin event. So it was a busy day for her. She ran the 60m – and friends, she really did run – in 35.80secs. Lovely to see. But the World Record for the 100+ age group (and yes there is one) is 24.79secs. So she’s got a bit of training ahead of her.
I won’t mention any names here, not add any photographic clues, but these were championships where I couldn’t help but become aware of athletes in the older age groups supporting each other (and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word) if and when one of their number is now clearly dealing with memory and cognitive loss, numerous athletes competing while dealing with heart issues (and associated medical interventions), recent cancer surgeries and joint replacements, and with long-term health conditions including Type 1 Diabetes. Others are coping with bereavements and indeed the full range of “the other crap we humans must endure as we age”, as my Facebook correspondent observed. This is a true community, living, pulsing, bleeding and triumphing, as I keep saying.
A final word
For the last ten months I’ve been suffering from a labral hip tear (don’t get me started on it, I can go on forever about it) and have been doing intensive physiotherapy coupled with weekly visits to a chiropractor for the past four or five months. A medical team always accompanies the GB team at these big events (they too are volunteers) and for a modest fee, competitors can sign up to be on their lists and claim up to four treatments during the event. As they still had some places available, I was allowed to add my own name to the list. By the end of the week, I really needed help.
These medical teams (and the GB one is of course by no means the only one) set up their portable beds along one area of the inner walkway of the stadium, next to the café. Nope, there’s no privacy but what there is, is absolutely top-class physio and chiropractic treatment. There were three physios and two chiropractors in Torun for the GB team. They were all brilliant. I was assigned to Daniel from Port Talbot in Wales, and he got to work.
One of the athletes who saw me laughed and said “ well Alex, you really are one of us now!” and she took a picture on my phone (above). I’m so proud of it! It feels like a badge of honour to have been allowed to access this amazing treatment and to be an honorary member of team GB. So thank you, everyone for showing me the warmth of your community and allowing me in to share it. I’ve come home feeling very warm, very blessed and very happy to be part of such a mutually supportive and inclusive sporting group where you see the best athletes in the world at every age group but also where you see what it means to be human and what being a winner really means.