Yes, but was it sport?

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Robert Marchand, age 105, and French of course, set a new hour record for centenarians, pedaling his bike about twelve miles in sixty minutes, a pace that, as one wag put it, “is about how fast you’d ride down to the bakery for a baguette.”

Many thousands hailed the feat, but at least one sour journalist called the new hour record, “good for him, absurd for us,” as he railed about the silliness of calling the spectacle of a 105-year-old man puttering around a velodrome sport, or anything other than a testament to the simple impressiveness of existing at such an advanced age. He compared the feat to a circus freak show, where people are gawked at not for what they’ve done, but for what they are.

And his point isn’t a bad one. Presumably the pool of riders over the age of 100 attempting the hour record, is, well, small. And the angry journalist continued with the pretty shrewd observation that the real fascination isn’t with the cycling “exploit,” it’s with Marchand’s longevity. Rather than questions about training, equipment, or the incredible mental fortitude one needs to tackle the hour record, everyone wanted to know not the secret to his sporting success but the secret to his long life. It’s as if the press conference were to ask Usain Bolt, after breaking a world record, about the secret to his beautiful teeth.

One physician broke down Marchand’s longevity thus: 30% genetic, and 70% willpower, courage, and “clean living.” That sounds like an extremely unscientific 70 percent to me. He also noted, and this is the key, that Marchand’s record wasn’t an absolute one, but rather age-graded. It wasn’t a statement about the capacity of a person on a bike, it was a statement about the capacity of a 105-year-old-man on a bike, a capacity that few will ever be able to challenge because hardly anyone will ever a) live to be that old and b) be able to ride a bike if they are.

It’s the ultimate master’s race, where you are categorized first by the condition of your prostate, and only once it’s adjudged to be sufficiently flappy and leaky, does one look at your actual performance on the bike.

And frankly, why stop with the hour record in cycling? All that Marchand needs to do now is get in the pool and freestyle 100 laps and he will be the world record holder for that, too, and he could also pick up the world titles in the 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 simply by making it to one end of the pool and back a few times. Track and field events are probably out of his range, as the running events are already populated with 105-year-old champions, but there is an entire Guinness Book of World Records that Marchand could rewrite simply by doing them. Oldest guy to eat ten donuts, oldest guy to drink four cups of coffee, oldest guy to walk and chew gum at the same time. He could become the most decorated, record-breaking human of all time, not because he was particularly good at anything, but simply because he existed.

But …

If you take away all of the circus-freak enthusiasts who are in denial about their own age, who think that “age is just a number” (so is the speed of light, by the way), and who are really fascinated by Marchand’s longevity rather than his cycling, and if you focus on the cycling aspect itself, it’s not without athletic merit.

First, though, a few parameters. Sport seems to have two components, the absolute and the relative. Absolute records are the gold standard for performance, in this case the greatest distance ridden by any human being ever in one hour on a velodrome. There are no centenarians in this category.

The other component is relative. Men versus women, juniors versus elite athletes, para-athletes verus non-para athletes, and of course the ultimate “everyone’s a winner” combo of age + gender categorizations, i.e. masters events. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the relativity of closed universe sports, the best example of which is the World Series of Baseball which includes a single country.

Do these relative categorizations demean the legitimacy of an athletic accomplishment and deny it the category of sport? That depends. There’s a good argument to be made that if you’re the only person competing, it’s probably not as sporting as when you’re going against a field of a hundred competitors. And as you age, the pool gets smaller. Obviously. That’s why the idea of Marchand the oldest record holder in the 100 freestyle, Marchand the record holder donut eater, Marchand the record holder TV watcher doesn’t really sound that impressive.

On the other hand, the older you are, the harder it gets, and I’m not talking about your package. People who think that riding a bike at 80 isn’t a challenge simply don’t know anything about what it’s like to be 80. As you age everything gets harder, and more to the point, it gets a lot deadlier.

Falling off a bicycle, for example, is something that you’ll bounce up from in your 20s, but that could easily kill you in your 80s, to say nothing of your 90s, or dog forbid, your 100s. Danger and risk are part of sport, aren’t they? And we admire people who do courageous things, don’t we? Well, Marchand takes his life in his hands every time he throws a leg over. One false move and he could well be dead. 105-year-olds don’t get second chances.

For the people who think that Marchand’s feat is anything but, how many activities do you engage in daily that, with a single misstep, could kill you?

This understanding of the rising risk for aging athletes brings us back full circle, which is to the biggest sport, the biggest competition of all, that is to say longevity. Your longevity, unlike your master’s mixed time trial for riders 65+, is matched against every human who has ever lived. Life is the ultimate competition, and once you crack a hundred you are in rarefied air. Once you crack 105 you are, statistically, not only among the super elite, you are literally days away from death.

People who make it that far are rarely paragons of physical fitness. My wife’s grandmother, at 101, is completely senile and can’t walk. Life grinds you down, and most people, statistically, get ground down to death before they ever hit 80, much less 105. Things break, shit stops functioning, small accidents become catastrophic injuries, things fall apart, cf. Chinua Achebe.

So here we have a guy who didn’t just make the ultimate selection of life, and make it to the incredible age of 105, but he also had enough on the ball to ride his bike for an hour around a velodrome, and lest we forget, on a bike with no brakes. How many people age 50 can do that?

But even if you still don’t buy that a guy competing against himself is sport, isn’t it refreshing that the news media can celebrate some old codger for having the gumption to get out there and ride around in circles for an hour? Doesn’t it make you smile, just a little bit, to see someone that old making so many other people feel good about life, and inspiring people to try harder no matter what their age?

Makes me smile, anyway, which means that his feat wasn’t just good for him, but it was good for me, too.

END

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