On a trip to the Alps twenty years ago, I got on the train at Chamonix at the same time as a mountaineer. Replete with climbing gear, the mountaineer had the taut muscularity typical of those who spend years climbing in extreme conditions. And she was probably over 70 years old. I was surprised by her, which indicated that I still had unconscious biases in my thinking about women, aging and adventurous activity. A Reinhold Messner-type, smiling broadly through an icy beard, lived in my mind and was not going to make room for others without encouragement.
I remember this woman not only because she gave me an opportunity to examine my biases (yet again), but also because she presented an option for the future I had not considered. People of exemplary character often transform others in just this tacit sort of way. The lack of opportunity for these kinds of tacit encounters is just another of the many harms of ageism.
One way people have tried to address this problem in sport is to “add women and stir.” The idea is that if more women participate in non-traditional sports and more young girls and women have good role models, we will eventually achieve equity. And if more older women participate in sport, we will be able to overcome biases associated with aging and activity.
But the “add women and stir” method will only get us so far. In Canada, many think the goal of exercise for the elderly is to delay physical decline, disability and dementia, even though old people themselves often cite other reasons like fun, sociability, excitement and challenge. And many think that what the elderly do for exercise – whether recreational or competitive at the masters level – merely amounts to lesser, easier versions of exercise for young people. Why should this these be the dominant ways of conceptualizing the physical activity of older people?
An article by the sociologist and historian Henning Eichberg first drew this problem to my critical attention. Drawing upon shamanistic traditions that involve dancing and other forms of activity, Eichberg argues that there are radically different ways to understand aging and physical activity. He says that in these traditions, elders offer
‘something that the young people cannot …They create their own movement culture, from out of their own premises – and as a gift to the rest of society. They do not do sport ‘for’ the elderly, but they dance for the community.’
The problem, he argues, is not so much aging in sports as it is ‘social organization that conceals the resources and the otherness of aging.’ And because aging is viewed in very different ways cross-culturally, many different resources for movement cultures exist. But this is typically hidden in mono-cultural perspectives of sport.
Another option for understanding aging and activity stems from Simone Fullagar’s ‘slow, social and sensuous’ view of sport. Her approach challenges the dominance of ideals related to strength, speed, and ‘winning’ in sport and re-values diverse forms of physical activity. The slow, social and sensuous aspects of sport are on par with other aspects of sport and do not just apply to activities like yoga and dance. These experiences are also a part of sprinting and skiing and all else. And we can learn a lot about these other dimensions of sport from older, more experienced athletes.
This is not because they are slower athletes. Often they are faster and train smarter. Rather, older active people have often developed wisdom through experience and are better able to integrate wisdom in living with sport and recreation. When I think of Barbara Hillary’s expeditions to the north and south poles at ages 75 and 79 respectively, and read what she has to say about adventure and life, I see wisdom and integrity. Her virtues in living and physical activity are fully integrated and this is inspiring and empowering. And tremendously reassuring: when older women take control of situations, blaze trails, and share their knowledge and experience they build conceptual structures for other women to climb. Women like Hillary are wise in ways that most young people simply are not. Thus, out of her ‘own premises,’ she offers a great and unique gift to society.
I don’t know what radically new movement cultures created by people older than me might look like in my own community, but the possibilities are exciting. Drawing attention to them – and finding ones that exist but are hidden by prejudice – is perhaps one of the most important projects ahead for women in sporting contexts. I’m sure the mountaineer in the Alps had a lot to teach me about movement in the world and I’m delighted that she and Barbara have joined the Messners of my mind. What I need now is to learn more from people like them and find ways to help others take control of movement cultures, the ways in which they are defined, and the values that they promote in sport in recreation.
Moira Howes, B.Sc., M.A., Ph.D., is a philosophy professor at Trent University. She philosophizes about lots of things, but mainly about argumentation, biology, feminism, intellectual virtue, and objectivity. Most recently she has been writing about mindfulness, virtue, and adventure sport. Her favorite activities include trail running, skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, and hiking.