Golden oldies: A tribute to the 'veterans' who have made their mark on Sochi 2014
From Alpine skiing to the luge, the Olympic Winter Games are a festival of some the most high-octane sports in the world, requiring a perfect fusion of consummate skill and technique, physical strength and breathtaking speed.
So, you might then be forgiven for thinking that youthful athleticism is the key to success. Think again. At Sochi 2014 we have witnessed some remarkable performances from the so called ‘veterans’, the wily old competitors who just refuse to bow out gracefully and let the youngster take centre stage. We pay tribute to the ‘thirty-somethings’… and indeed the ‘forty-somethings’, who have won medals and broken records at Sochi 2014.
Bode Miller, 36 (men’s Alpine skiing)
By his own gilt-edged standards, Sochi 2014 will not go down as the American Alpine legend’s greatest ever Games. However Bode Miller's fifth appearance on the Winter Olympic stage did produce a notable new landmark.
At 36, he set a new Olympic record as the oldest Alpine skier to win a medal when he claimed bronze in the super-G on 16 February, taking his overall tally to six. Asked what he thought about joining Alpine greats Hermann Maier and Kjetil Andre Aamodt as multiple medallists in super-G, Miller said simply: “It means I'm old!” However, by comparison to some of his fellow Olympians he is still a youngster…
Albert Demchenko, 42, and Armin Zöggeler, 40 (men’s luge)
The 42-year old luge veteran did not disappoint an expectant home crowd, when on his record seventh appearance at the Winter Games – 22 years after his first – he raced to silver in the men’s individual luge, and then doubled his tally in the doubles. And if it wasn’t for the fact that he faced wunderkind Felix Loch, arguably the best luger the world has ever seen, the colour of his medal at Sochi 2014 might well have been gold.
Meanwhile, Italy’s Armin Zöggeler, a relative whippersnapper at just 40, took his personal medal tally to six in Sochi, finishing just behind Demchenko in the men’s individual event to win bronze. In doing so, “Il Cannibale” became the first Olympian in history to win six medals at six consecutive editions of the Games, Winter or Summer.
Noriaki Kasai, 41 (men’s ski jump)
Last but, but by no means least, comes Japan’s indomitable ski jumper Noriaki Kasai who, like Demchenko has been a regular fixture at the Winter Games stretching back to Albertville 1992, and is the only other athlete to appear in seven editions.
Two years later he won silver at Lillehammer… and then another 20 years after that he repeated the same feat in Sochi, in the men’s large hill on 15 February – the largest ever gap between two Olympic medals - where a phenomenal penultimate leap left him just 1.3 points short of becoming the oldest ever Winter Olympic champion.
Alla Tsuper, 34 (women’s aerials)
The Belarusian freestyler provided one of the most poignant moments of the 2014 Winter Games, and an object lesson in perseverance and endeavour. When she took gold in the women’s aerials on 14 February, it brought to an end a 16-year quest for an Olympic medal. Having first competed as a teenager in Nagano in 1998, and then again in 2002, 2006 and 2010, where she finished fifth. Tsuper then took two years out to focus on her new role as a mother. Convinced to return to competition she arrived in Sochi, ranked 13th in the world, more than expectation… crept into the final by the skin of her teeth, and then blew the competition away with the performance of her career.
And she revealed her secret was to pretend she was doing it all for the first time: “This year, I decided to treat Sochi as if it was my debut appearance at the Games. And to worked: I wasn’t nervous at all!”
Winston Watts, 46 (men’s bobsleigh)
The Jamaican bobsleigh pilot Winston Watts may not have won a medal in Sochi or even come anywhere close to the podium, but at 46 – that’s three times the age of 15-year-old Russian ice dance princess Julia Lipnitskaia – the Jamaican offers a template for endurance, commitment and passion that form core components in the DNA of any true Olympian.
Watts, who is taking part in his fourth Winter Games in Sochi and who describes himself as “old as dirt”, is mindful of his role in creating an enduring legacy as he gets ready to hand the bobsleigh baton to a new generation whom he and brakeman Marvin Dixon have helped inspire.
“Our main goal towards the next Olympics is to have young pilots, get younger athletes to portray their dream to go forward to the Olympics in Republic of Korea in 2018,” says Watts. “I'm still going to continue for maybe a year or two and just give it up to younger people so they can bring the legacy on.”
Teemu Selanne, 43 (men’s ice hockey)
Finnish ice hockey veteran Teemu Selanne set a new all-time Olympic points record when he scored in his team's quarter-final victory over the hosts, and having guided the Finns into the semi finals, he is not done yet.
Selanne made his Olympic debut in Albertville back in 1992 and has now competed at six editions of the Olympic Winter Games. “I'm 43, and I play on the same line as guys who are 19 and 20-something,” he says. “It's a good thing. Obviously they're just numbers. Mentally, I think we are the same age. “Obviously I'm very proud that I've been able to play for so many years, and the passion for the game is the biggest reason I can still play. Of course it's not getting any easier at this age. But I'm still trying to play my best level and help the team,” he adds.
“Knowing it's going to be my last Olympics, it's a good thing, you can really enjoy it. You see things differently, and just enjoy it," he adds.
Hanna-Riikka Valila, 40 (women’s ice hockey)
Selanne’s compatriot and fellow forty-something, not to mention mother-of-three, Hanna-Riikka Valila returned to compete at the top level in her sport in 2013 after an entire decade away.
Her natural talent, bolstered by sheer hard work, meant that she was soon reselected for the Finnish team for Sochi 2014.
“I was a little reluctant to return at first. After all, I'm old enough to be the mother of many of my team-mates," she says. “But I enjoy playing with these younger girls, they keep me feeling younger.”
Ole-Einar Bjørndalen, 40 (biathlon)
Last, and definitely not least, we come to the man who, at the age of 40, has just rewritten Olympic history. On 19 February, Norwegian biathlon legend, Ole-Einar Bjørndalen won his 13th medal at the Winter Games, surpassing the previous benchmark set by his compatriot Bjorn Daehlie, to become, officially, the most successful Winter Olympian of all time.
The colour of his record-breaking medal was, fittingly, gold, as he spearheaded Norway to gold in the first ever mixed team relay. Not bad for an old man, for whom age has become nothing more than a number. “Life,” he says, “is too short to give up. You always need to keep going on.”
That is a motto that could easily apply to all of the ‘veterans’ who have played such a big part in making Sochi 2014, and indeed the Winter Games through the ages, such a special occasion.