Bob Dunning

Standing In: Just what is an ‘athlete’?

By From page A2 | September 24, 2013

I feel vindicated. When I told my college classmate who writes about classmates in our monthly alumni magazine that I would be playing bocce in the National Senior Games this summer, he scoffed and compared bocce to tiddlywinks. Imagine that!

This classmate purportedly has a Ph.D. and I have always considered him to be pretty smart. But the people who organize the National Senior Games, sometimes unofficially referred to as the “Senior Olympics,” know better. When they sent me a letter confirming my registration, the letter started, “Dear Athlete.”

Wow! This is the first time anyone has called me an athlete. I like it. I like it a lot. I hope it will be in my obituary: “He was an athlete.”

In late July, almost 11,000 of us athletes, male and female, converged on Cleveland from all 50 states and eight countries. The only thing we had in common was being at least 50 years old, a requirement that I had no problem meeting. The “Games” occur every two years, with the venue rotating from city to city. Four years ago, they were in Palo Alto; two years ago in Houston. In 2015, they will be in Minneapolis.

Scheduled over a two-week period, in Cleveland there were competitions in 21 sports: archery, badminton, basketball, bocce, bowling, cycling, disc golf, golf, horseshoes, pickleball, race walk, racquetball, road race, shuffleboard, softball, swimming, table tennis, tennis, track and field, triathlon and volleyball.

Unlike the other sports, bocce and disc golf were uniquely identified as “demonstration sports.” I never figured out what it meant to be a “demonstration” sport. Possibly, it’s because it may have been new to the Games. Probably, it was because, unlike the other sports, the competitors didn’t need to show competence in the sport to qualify to compete. This suited me perfectly. Just pay the $100 registration fee and show up.

Typically, athletes compete in five-year age brackets. As he has done for the past 10 years, a longtime friend played for the West Virginia Generals basketball team. In the interests of confidentiality, I won’t reveal his age.

Let me just say that his team competed in the same bracket as the Virginia Creepers, a team that included among its members Pat Boone, age 79. Yes, it was that Pat Boone, who charmed us all with “April Love” and “Love Letters in the Sand” many years ago. He still looks good. The basketball teams compete three-on-three, half-court. Neither Boone’s team nor my friend’s won a medal, but they were sure fun to watch.

The oldest competitors at the Games were a 100-year-old woman in the bowling tournament and a 101-year-old man who played badminton and ran in the 800- and 1,500-meter foot races. There was a 90-year-old pole vaulter.

You may be wondering what happened to me. Athletes compete individually in the bocce competition. Before I left for Cleveland, I learned that only two others had registered to play bocce in my age bracket, one of them from Pennsylvania and one from Texas. I told my family and friends that with only three in the bracket I was guaranteed no worse than a third-place medal. It didn’t quite work out that way. I returned home with a fourth-place ribbon.

Let me explain. When only 11 male athletes showed up for the bocce competition, the organizers decided that we should all compete against each other regardless of age. I reached the semifinals, but narrowly lost. In the consolation match for third place, an 87-year-old beat me 12 zip. Nothing like competition to teach an athlete some humility.

The tournament was won by a very serious 80-year-old competitor from the Bay Area who brought his own bocce balls all the way from California, four of them, each red, white and blue. Obviously, he wasn’t concerned about an airline’s excess baggage weight fee.

Actually, I like my fourth-place ribbon better than one of those heavy medals that they hang around the necks of those who finish first, second or third.

I must end this now, for I need to iron out the wrinkles in my ribbon.

— Roger Gambatese is a trust and estates lawyer in Davis who earned his undergraduate degree from Yale and his law degree from the University of Michigan. He has lived in Davis since 1965.

Special to The Enterprise

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