International masters competitions
American David Pain organised a ground-breaking European tour by American and Canadian masters athletes in 1972. In 1975 the highly successful biennial World Veteran Track and Field Championships began in Toronto. The World Association of Veteran Athletes (WAVA), later the World Masters Athletics, was founded in 1977. In January 1981 the IGAL (Interessen-Gemeinschaft Älterer Langstreckenläufer) road running world championships were held in Palmerston North. The WAVA track and field championships were held a few days later in Christchurch.
The New Zealand sports media finally began to report masters sport seriously, rather than with condescending images of decrepit runners falling over hurdles. The Oceania Veterans Games (track and field), first held in Fiji in 1982, were strongly supported by New Zealand athletes. Other sports followed suit, with the first masters world swimming championships held in 1978.
The Palmerston North harriers’ club successfully organised the 1981 IGAL world road running championships with a group of volunteers on a low budget. On the registration day the competitors’ numbers, ordered from the US, had not arrived. Organisers rushed to buy plastic material, cut it up and write the numbers with felt pens. Despite this hiccup, sunny weather and a large crowd made for a carnival atmosphere and a highly successful event.
The first World Masters Games were in Toronto in 1985. The impact of 8,300 participants on the local economy ensured the games’ survival, despite a financial loss for the organisers. The concept was then sold to Denmark. Since 1994 numbers for the four-yearly gathering have regularly been over 20,000. Winter Masters Games were added in 2010.
In New Zealand, Christchurch initiated a South Island Masters Games in 1988. It was later held in Timaru and, in the 2000s, Nelson. The first New Zealand Masters Games, initiated by Arthur Klap, were held in Whanganui in 1989, with 1,400 participants in 31 sports. From 1992 the games have been annual, alternating between Whanganui and Dunedin. Disposable income, free time and active lifestyles make masters a target market for equipment manufacturers, host cities and the travel industry, capitalising on the growing connection between sport and tourism. When Auckland hosted the World Masters Games in 2017, 28,000 people participated in 28 sports at 48 venues.
In the 1987 World Veterans Championships, four male New Zealand 1,500-metres runners – John Dixon, Dave Sirl, Ian Babe and Derek Turnbull – won gold medals in four age-groups. Between 1989 and the early 1990s, New Zealand male marathoners John Campbell, Roger Robinson and Derek Turnbull were ranked number one in the world in the 40-plus, 50-plus, and 60-plus age-groups respectively. In 2010–11 Bernie Portenski set world 60-plus bests in five distances (3,000 metres to marathon), continuing the pattern she set at 45-plus, 50-plus and 55-plus.
Policy, funding and the future
In the 2000s Sport New Zealand (which changed its name from SPARC in 2012) encouraged sport participation among older people. The Ministry of Health had responsibility for health-related schemes, such as Push Play and Green Prescription, which enabled doctors and nurses to prescribe physical exercise. However, masters sport was still mainly self-created, self-administered and self-funded. In the Round Lake Taupō cycle race in 2010, there were 264 riders aged over 65. Many New Zealand masters went on their own initiative to events such as the New York City Marathon.
In the 2000s most sports had masters associations and age-group championships. Teams and individuals travelled to overseas events, such as the Pacific Rim and International Masters Hockey tournaments, the FINA World Masters Swimming Championships and International Triathlon Union world championships. These generally appealed to more serious competitors, while the Masters Games and Golden Oldies’ festivals were more social.