The old go for gold

FAN swivelled her hips and giggled: "Do you know the rumba? I was always a dancer but when I started race walking at 70 I found it used the same sort of floating movement as the Latin steps."

The petite 81-year-old from Dallas, Texas, had just flown halfway round the world to take part in the 13th World Veterans' Athletics Championships which officially opened in Gateshead yesterday.

Was she jetlagged? Of course not. Octogenarians who eat healthily and get plenty of fresh air and exercise just don't have to deal with the kind of problems that afflict the sedentary masses.

"All my friends are in their thirties and forties. Outside of athletics, I only really meet people my own age when I go to nursing homes to give talks on how movement can keep you young."

And with that she was off, jogging across the stadium in black leggings and USA T-shirt to flirt with the TV cameramen.

Fan is part of a new breed of older athletes who are spreading the word that you don't have to age with age.

In addition to athletes who have competed at national and international level all their lives, many of the 6,000 competitors taking part in events grouped by age from 45 to 95 plus, have taken up the sport late in life.

"I was an accountant but I used to drink too much and so when I retired I decided to get fit," said 81-year-old Takuro Muira, a diminutive Japanese whose distinctive bandy legs topped by yellow shorts helped him achieve a high jump world record for his age group last year.

Gonzalez Gilberto, an 86-year-old Puerto Rican gets upset when people call him a "veteran". "Sure, I'm a veteran of two world wars but when it comes to athletics I'm a master." He has clocked up 1,231 medals in the last 20 years.

"I still love the fever of competition and the friendships that come from these events, I even met my second wife this way," he said.

Gateshead council has done its best to keep tabs on the whereabouts of all these pensioners but inevitably some have gone astray.

A 60-year-old Bolivian man who spoke no English was found wandering around London looking for Gateshead while the driver of a National Express coach en route for Scotland was persuaded to divert from his route to drop off a large group of Indian athletes at the stadium.

On the stands, Enid, a spectator from Preston was reunited with Peter, a tall, skinny pole- vaulter from Slovakia, who she helped at a station five years ago when he couldn't get his pole on a train.

The two conversed eagerly in broken German as Peter plied Enid with maps of his homeland and pictures of his family.

On the track, the octogenarians dispense with the macho thigh slapping, jumping and huffing of the younger men - and often the blocks too.

But the determination to win is etched on their faces and their pace is impressive.

"You can't be careful," says 83-year-old Tony Rawlinson, who has brought a stripy deckchair with him from Welwyn Garden City.

"You have to try and do it as well as you can, otherwise you might as well drop out."