Senior stars of track and field

Athletes at this week's Senior Citizens Olympics had reason to feel good.

seniorolympics 298 88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
seniorolympics 298 88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
No world records were shattered and no personal o o bests were bettered. But since all of the participants were at least 60 years old, spectators and participants alike generally took the view that simply entering the competition was an achievement. After all, the oldest competitor was 93 years old. Held Monday and Tuesday at athletic facilities around the city, the second annual sports festival attracted nearly 800 participants from around Israel. Retired athletes faced off in track and field events, tennis, table tennis, biking and swimming. A number of new events added this year including footraces of 100 and 3,000 meters. Created to promote "sports, health, and quality of life" -- the slogan's acronym in Hebrew is "grandfather" - the event encourages regular exercise among senior citizens to improve physical fitness and prolong and improve their retirement years. Mayor Uri Lupolianski helped kick off the competition at the opening ceremony Monday morning, then fired the starting gun at the games' first event - a running race over a distance of 10 kilometers. Though they all exceeded the competition's minimum age requirement, participants came from a wide variety of personal and athletic backgrounds, and differed in age by over 30 years. Eli Ayal, an 82-year-old former fighter pilot from Ramat Hasharon, began playing tennis regularly at age 40, while Haim Migdali, an 84-year-old Michmoret resident, has been a regular swimmer ever since his boyhood in a beachside town in Italy. Elite athletes from Israel's past were also in the mix, with Baruch Feinberg, a 72-year-old field events competitor from Haifa, who won national javelin titles between 1957 and 1972 and competed for Israel at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Perhaps the games' most accomplished competitor was Gershon Shefa, at 62 one of the event's youngest participants. Currently a resident of Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud, Shefa won national swimming titles every year between 1959 and 1969 and swam in three consecutive Summer Olympics in the '60s, competing for Israel at the Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City Olympics. Later a coach of Israel's national swimming program, Shefa has more recently won swimming titles at European competitions for senior citizens. Haim, the swimmer from Michmoret, said he "very much enjoyed" the competition and was satisfied with his performance. The octogenarian athlete improved on his third-place finish in last year's 100-meter freestyle race by winning this year's swim. He said his winning time of two minutes and 20 seconds was "good for my age" - he won in the 80 and older category - but he noted with a laugh that he couldn't be considered a threat to today's elite swimmers. (The world record in the 100-meter freestyle belongs to Holland's Pieter van den Hoogenband, who swam the event in 47.84 seconds in 2000.) 84-year-old Haim, who underwent heart surgery several years ago, called the Senior Citizens Olympics a "wonderful" event and said he hopes to compete again next year if he remains healthy. He'll be taking a break from training in the next few months, he said, because the water at the Michmoret beach where he normally swims is now too cold to practice in comfort. Funded with a $65,000 contribution from Joint Israel and Eshel, an advocacy and assistance organization for senior citizens, the event was co-sponsored by the city of Jerusalem and the National Association of Community Centers. A municipality spokesperson said the city was pleased with the competition and was planning to hold it for a third time next year. "We're turning this into a tradition," she said. "We're hoping that next year this will become an international event."