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Champions of Aging

Warren W. Blaney

Blaney made us appreciate good athletes of all ages

Today we’re accustomed to seeing lithe, sinewy septuagenarians crossing the finish line in marathons. It’s strange to think that just a half century ago, older people were expected to take it easy and avoid anything more strenuous than shuffleboard.

Slideshow: AARP Champions of Aging

Warren Blaney, Senior Olympics

Warren Blaney (far right), 1904-2000. — Courtesy of Worth Blaney

One of the trailblazers for the change was a retired Los Angeles businessman named Warren W. Blaney. He founded the Senior Olympics (since renamed the National Senior Games), the first nationwide multisport competition that actively encouraged older athletes to participate.

Blaney himself seems to have avoided the spotlight, preferring instead to focus attention on the vigor and abilities of the competitors in his events. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to overlook his important role in promoting the notion that we’re never too old to work up a healthy sweat.

Born in 1903 in Oregon, Blaney moved as a young man to northern California, where he worked as a clerk in a dry goods store. In the early 1930s, he again moved down the coast, to Los Angeles, where he settled for the next several decades, doing well enough in business to live in an affluent neighborhood. Oddly, the few contemporary newspaper articles that mention him are vague about his particular industry; a 1974 Los Angeles Times article, for example, describes him only as a retired “product manufacturer.”

What’s more important about Blaney is that he was ahead of his time when it came to fitness and diet. He walked six miles daily and stuck faithfully to a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Even into his 70s, Blaney, who stood an inch under 6 feet, kept his weight at a trim 156 pounds. As he told the Times in 1974, his fitness secret was straightforward and simple: “Your body tells you what it needs, [and] all you have to do is listen.”

Blaney also was a runner and track-and-field jumper, and in 1968 he entered one of the track events that were springing up, in part due to the jogging craze triggered by Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s influential best-seller Aerobics. The track experience apparently inspired Blaney to dream of an even bigger event — modeled after the Olympic Games — in which older athletes could compete in a variety of sports. In 1969, he founded a nonprofit organization, Senior Sports International, and secured the help of the Helms Athletic Foundation and the Los Angeles Times.

A year later, Blaney staged the first “Senior Olympix” in Los Angeles. The meet was open to athletes age 40 and older, and had competition in three sports: swimming, diving and track and field. About 200 people participated — including Blaney, who won the 60-and-over triple jump with a leap of 21 feet 2½ inches, according to a newspaper account.

From there, the Senior Olympics movement grew. One of the appeals, no doubt, was the egalitarian, uplifting ambiance of the events, in which ordinary recreational exercisers occasionally found themselves lined up alongside world-famous athletes. Most notably, swimming-champion-turned-movie-Tarzan Buster Crabbe competed in senior swimming in Los Angeles in 1972, four decades after he’d achieved Olympic stardom. Blaney eventually lowered the age limit to 25, and by 1979, the Senior Olympics had grown to 5,000 competitors in sports ranging from tennis and bowling to ice skating to sailing, including 750 athletes over the age of 65.

Another reason the Senior Olympics movement grew so rapidly was Blaney’s promotional skill in recruiting more and more older athletes with such slogans as “Creating the New Adult Image.” His enthusiasm also proved contagious. By including ice hockey in the games, for example, he attracted the attention of “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz, a skater and hockey buff since childhood. After playing in the games for several years, Schultz offered to take over the hockey program and help cover the expenses, according to the 2000 book Charles M. Schulz: Conversations.

Blaney, who worked with his son, Worth, to manage the games, also did his part to further scientific knowledge about older athletes. In one instance, the Blaneys helped scientists to recruit well-conditioned senior competitors for an important 1982 study on the effect of aging on the body’s ability to take in and use oxygen.

In 1985 Blaney turned administration of the games over to others. After his death in 2000, he was inducted into the National Senior Games Hall of Fame. Today, scores of older athletes are following the path that Blaney envisioned in a 1983 Los Angeles Times interview. “This kind of thing is good in every way,” he said. “Instead of looking back as they get older, Senior Olympians think about tomorrow. They think, ‘I’ll beat that guy next year.’ "

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Video Extra

AGE OF CHAMPIONS: The Summer National Senior Games is an inspiring display of high spirits and good fellowship. Documentary captures fierce competitors who love to win.

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