Still running at 119? Not so fast
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PERTH, Nov 21 — For this competition, the most astonishing name on the start list for 100 metres did not belong to Usain Bolt. But what Dharam Pal Singh of India lacked in renown, he more than made up for as an international man of mystery.
If Singh really was 119, born on October 6, 1897, as his passport said, his presence would be extraordinary at the World Masters Athletics Championships. This would make him not only the oldest known runner in the world but probably the oldest man in the world.
The problem was, many people did not believe his story.
“We suspect that he is lying about his age,” said Vinod Kumar, the senior joint secretary of the Masters Athletics Federation of India.
Dr Thomas T. Perls of Boston, a leading researcher on centenarians, said the oldest age ever validated for a man was 115. The oldest confirmed person was Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman who died in 1997 at 122.
In his experience, said Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Centre, “99 per cent of all claims of being 115 or older are false.”
The chances of Singh’s being 119 and a competitive runner probably equalled the odds of “building a rocket ship and going to Pluto,” Perls said. “Inconceivable.”
And yet, he added, if Singh was, say, in his 90s, any running he did “was still spectacular.”
Singh denied exaggerating his age. In late October, he had more immediate concerns.
A farmer, he lived in the Indian village of Gudha, nearly 5,000 miles from the world masters championships. He wanted to reach Perth by October 24 to prepare to run the 100, 200 and 400 metres. He had paid his entry fee but did not have money to buy an airline ticket. He also needed a visa. He would travel to New Delhi. Maybe a politician there would arrange the necessary funds for Australia.
“I’m willing to stay in a cheap room,” Singh said, “but I want to go.”
Otherwise, the oldest competitor would be an Australian legend, John Gilmour, 97, a World War II veteran who was captured by the Japanese and put into forced labour. Malnutrition and the harsh conditions permanently shrouded his vision. Still, he resumed his running career after the war. He knew what a body could withstand. The pain of sport was nothing compared with the pain of capture.
To read, Gilmour needed a magnifying glass. He wore sunglasses outdoors to shield his eyes. He could see the lanes of a track, but he could not read the bib numbers of his competitors. Faces were smudged. He met people and shook hands and said hi and hoped that was enough not to be considered a “stuck-up bugger” if he did not recognise a friend.
Despite his impaired vision, he once set world masters records from 800n to the marathon. He went 10 years without a defeat on the track. In his mid-60s, he could still run a marathon in less than three hours. His shock of white hair, always combed in a neat pompadour, even in the middle of races, gave him the serene, yearning look of a pioneer.
“Despite all the adversity” in life, “there’s a way to survive,” said Stan Perkins, an Australian who is president of World Masters Athletics, the sport’s governing body. “That’s John. He should have died as a prisoner of war, but he didn’t. He came home and recovered. He got back to competing at the absolutely top level.”
On a track a half-hour from his home, Gilmour was coming out of retirement for his first meet in 11 years. Four thousand athletes from 91 countries were scheduled to compete at the world masters championships from October 26 to November 6, the equivalent of the Olympics for runners and throwers and jumpers 35 and older.
Gilmour had entered the 800, 1,500 and 400, in that order. In his final event, one of his opponents could be Dharam Pal Singh.
“Hard to believe,” Gilmour said of any athlete who could be 119. “He’s lucky to be alive, much less jogging around.”
Yet, despite uncertainty about his age, Singh was as stirring to some Indian athletes as Gilmour was to Australian athletes.
“He’s healthy and active; that’s inspiring to me,” said Abdussamed Ambzhthingal, a relative sprinting novice at 75.
Unlike Gilmour, who lived a catalogued life — verified by documents, photographs, trophies, medals and two biographies — Singh could not produce a birth certificate. They were not regularly issued in India’s villages when he was said to have been born.
Such gaps in birth registration tended to skew masters records toward athletes from more developed nations and disproportionately hindered athletes from Africa, India and elsewhere in Asia, said Harmander Singh, a social policy analyst and marathon coach from London.
He had coached another runner born in India named Fauja Singh. Now a British citizen, Fauja Singh gained widespread attention in 2011 when he ostensibly set eight world age-group records at a track meet in Toronto and became the first centenarian to complete a marathon.
Yet, Fauja Singh, now said to be 105, also lacked a birth certificate. He could not convince masters officials or Guinness World Records of his age. None of his achievements have been certified as records.
“People in the Third World are at a disadvantage for being taken seriously,” said his coach, Harmander Singh.
Masters officials vigorously denied bias in the way they treated athletes or apportioned records. They were simply trying to be fair to everyone, said Sandy Pashkin, an American who is the chief record keeper for World Masters Athletics.
This was not considered a trivial matter for competitions and world records, given that age groups were divided into five-year increments. A runner in, say, the 70-74 category could have a considerable advantage over someone in the 80-84 category.
For four years, officials said, they had patiently requested that Dharam Pal Singh provide reliable evidence to verify his birth date: School records, military records, baptismal records, medical records, school records of his children.
“We have absolutely nothing to prove how old he really is,” Pashkin said. “He could be 80; he could be 100. We don’t know.”
Through the years, Singh had not been consistent in listing his age at meets, officials said. One said that he registered for this world masters championship as a 117-year-old, not a 119-year-old. But he was given the benefit of the doubt, and his entry was accepted, with an asterisk.
If he travelled to Perth, Singh would be allowed to compete in the 95-to-99 category. Any record he set would not be validated, but any medal he won would be awarded. A duplicate medal would be given to any competitor he beat. Everyone else’s age in that group had been verified.
There were mixed feelings among meet officials. Singh might distract news media attention from all other competitors. But, whatever his age, his presence would promote healthy living. And he might also draw bigger crowds. People could decide for themselves how old he appeared.
Tall and thin, wearing a turban and a beard, Singh was said by officials who had seen him run to possess a fluid stride and a great sense of theatre. Before races, he sometimes went into the grandstand to be photographed. And he pulled out his cellphone to speak to someone, or to pretend to speak to someone.
“When he runs the 100, he spends five minutes cheerleading,” Winston Thomas of Britain, secretary of World Masters Athletics, said with a chuckle. “Come on. At that age, who does that?”
Perkins, president of World Masters Athletics, said he, for one, hoped Singh showed up.
“We like the old guy,” Perkins said. “He’s a really lovely man. Look, he probably really has no idea how old he is, to be quite honest.”
Talk of jealousy
Dharam Pal Singh arrived for an interview in New Delhi carrying his own travelling bag and a handbag. He did not wear glasses or use a walking stick. For two or three hours in the company of a reporter, he appeared alert and comprehending.
His passport said his birthday was October 6, 1897. The same date appeared on his election voting card and his permanent account number, a code used for taxes. These are all valid government documents but not the primary documents to certify age.
Singh said he did not have a birth certificate. He said he was illiterate and did not have a school certificate, either. His mother provided a horoscope, which became the basis of his age, he said, but he was not carrying it with him.
His eldest son, born in 1949, was also illiterate and lacked a birth certificate and a school certificate, Singh said. He also said that none of his contemporaries in his village were still alive.
Singh carried two more documents. One listed him as the first-place finisher at 200m (50.26 seconds) for sprinters 100 and older at the 2014 Malaysian Masters Athletics Championships.
The other document was perhaps more significant.
It was an age certificate, dated May 21, 2014, and stamped and issued by the chief medical officer of the Meerut district in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Singh had not provided any documentary evidence to substantiate his age, the certificate said. But, based on general appearance and X-rays taken at P.L. Sharma Hospital Meerut, Singh appeared to be “100+.”
It was unclear how credible the certificate was. But it was signed by the chief government doctor in the region where Singh lived.
Those who accuse him of inflating his age “are jealous of my health, my age, my running,” Singh said, speaking Hindi.
“People say I do not look like 119,” he said. “If I walk with a stick and with a bent back, then I would look like 100-plus. Without a stick, with a straight back, I look like 80- to 90-plus. My good health has become my misfortune.”
Age fraud was uncommon at the world masters championships because there was not much incentive beyond a medal and a certificate, said Ken Stone of La Mesa, California, the founder and editor of masterstrack.com and a watchdog over age-group running.
“It’s much more common to find evidence of doping than to find evidence of age fraud,” Stone said.
Yet, within the niche sport, there had been a small number of high-profile cases of masters athletes who performed remarkable feats but could not satisfactorily prove their age to record keepers.
An ostentatious incident, Stone said, had occurred at the 2011 world meet in Sacramento, California. A 46-year-old Egyptian named Mohamed Megahed finished 14th in the long jump in the 45-49 age group. Then he borrowed a bib and entered the 50-54 age group, furtively seeking a better result against older competitors, only to be disqualified.
Douglas Kalembo, an Olympian who represented Zambia at the 1988 Seoul Games, appeared in 2010 to become the first 50-year-old to run faster than 50 seconds in the 400m. But his mark was never ratified, masters officials said, because of conflicting documents that suggested he might have been 39 or 40 at the time instead of 50.
In September 2015, a dispute arose about which of two men, both said to be 105, had become the world’s oldest, fastest sprinter at 100 meters. Guinness World Records sided with Hidekichi Miyazaki of Japan. World Masters Athletics sided with Stanislaw Kowalski of Poland.
At the time, officials also wrestled with the case of an 80-ish Greek man named Symeon Symeonidis. His father was said to have altered his birth certificate, making him appear younger so he could be eligible for food rations after World War II.
But the story could not be verified, said Kurt Kaschke, a German who is president of European Masters Athletics. Symeonidis, Kaschke said, was later penalised for age falsification.
Kaschke wrote a plaintive letter about the uncertainty that officials faced with some of the most elderly runners:
Was a birth certificate valid if the original no longer existed? What should be done about athletes born during World War I or II, when many records were destroyed? How could a birth date be proved when a government was not able to verify a birth on a particular day? Or when a country did not issue birth certificates?
These were questions without clear answers, Kaschke wrote to Stone last fall, “but you see it makes it difficult for all statisticians in the world to find ‘the truth’.”
The situation may be further complicated by the refugee crisis in Europe, as people flee countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, often without documents, as they seek a new life, masters officials said.
The issue of older athletes of indeterminate age was “not so much growing, but I wouldn’t say it was rare,” said Thomas, the secretary of World Masters Athletics. “Most times we’ve been able to sort something out.”
Historically, there have been numerous reasons people made false, inaccurate or unsubstantiated claims to extreme longevity, according to Perls, the Boston Medical Centre expert on ageing.
The fountain of youth and Shangri-La myths appealed to personal vanity. The Soviet Union asserted that people supposedly living into their 150s or 160s in the Caucasus — the birthplace of Stalin — proved the superiority of communism. Some Hindu yogis in India claimed to be 200 or older, drawing followers to their religious beliefs.
A person claiming to be of extreme age could also draw great attention and could be a source of pride and reverence for a family, a village, a country. Not all told deliberate falsehoods, Perls and colleagues wrote in a 2010 study.
Some who purported to be 110 or older were convinced of their ages, having been told so by others, the study said. Or they had forgotten as they grew older “about an intentional or erroneous change in their birth date from a long time ago.”
Yogendra Singh, a sociologist who has done field work in India’s villages, said older people tend to relate their ages to historical or other events in the past. “In the process, they have a tendency to orchestrate their age as it suits them,” said Singh, a professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “It is always relative and rarely absolute.”
Dharam Pal Singh said that his long life had nothing to do with fabricating his age. His secret was cows’ milk, herbal chutney and seasonal fruit that ripened in sunshine. He avoided butter, fried food, sugar, tobacco, alcohol, even tea and coffee.
“Intoxicants make you empty from inside,” he said.
He grew wheat, rice, sugar cane and vegetables, slept on a hard bed to keep his back straight and awakened at 4 in the morning after retiring at 11pm. He began running while herding cows when he was a teenager. Even now he tried to run 4 to 5km a day.
“I may compete until I’m 125,” Singh said.
He said he had been inspired by Fauja Singh, supposedly the first centenarian to complete a marathon. He had seen him on television and read about him in newspapers. But, he noted, “I have broken all of his records.”
His wife, Lakhmiri, was between 90 and 95. He had three sons, four daughters and 21 grandkids, though one of his suggestions for good health, besides running, was to “marry late and produce no more than two children”.
He was not competing for his own sake, Dharam Pal Singh said.
“I am trying to increase the pride of my nation,” he said. “My body is dedicated to my country.”
Day of reckoning
At 6.30am, hours before he was to run the 800, John Gilmour dressed in a track suit and shuffled a couple of laps in his backyard. A retired gardener, he had built a small earthen track years ago amid the bottle brush trees and geraniums. Sixty laps equalled a mile.
He had used the track when recovering from injury or when his wife, Alma, was sick. With his poor eyesight, he did not have to worry about getting lost or being hit by a car. Or, if Alma needed him, he was right there. He mowed his yard and spread grass clippings on the sandy soil to make it spongy for his thick legs.
Alma had died four years ago after struggling with arthritis and liver cancer. John quit running in 2005 to take care of her. She had let him compete all over the world, he said, and he wanted to “let her see I thought more of her than my running.”
Into his 70s, Gilmour had kept a rigorous training schedule. If it rained, he rode an exercise bike in the backyard shed until the weather cleared. Weekly, he headed into the bush to run in soft sand, using a power line overhead to keep him from straying off course. Sometimes he spray-painted markings on the road. Like Dharam Pal Singh, he avoided tobacco and alcohol.
His comeback for the world masters championships seemed a natural curtain call for a brilliant career. Perth was his adopted hometown. But he had not been able to train as fully as he wanted, saying he had been slowed by prostate cancer, a bladder infection and a chest infection. He fretted about a colostomy bag that would protrude below his running shorts.
Still, Gilmour had tried to run 2 or 3km each day, waking early and circling the perimeter of his brick home. Each lap was precisely 80m.
“Old age always wins,” Gilmour had said in his kitchen the previous afternoon, displaying various medications and supplements he had been taking. “It’s shocking. No matter how hard you try, it beats you.”
He had the stamina to keep going, but speed eluded him now, as if it were a baton he could not grasp in a relay.
“You seize up,” Gilmour said. “If you lose your balance, you fall over. If you fall, how do you get up?”
But his motto, as a prisoner of war and as a runner, had been “don’t give in.” Eight hundred meters on the track would equal 10 laps around his house.
“At least I’m going to finish,” he said. “I just hope I don’t embarrass anybody.”
Four runners were scheduled in the 95-99 age group. Gilmour was particularly concerned about Arthur Carbon, a fellow Australian and a former professional runner. Carbon had not run in 50 years but was also tempted out of retirement by the world masters championships.
The night before the race, Gilmour had felt a bit restless. He had struggled to get to sleep, worried about strategy, of all things. “If he’s too fast, I’ll let him go,” he had said of Carbon. “He’s 96, a young guy.”
As Gilmour arrived at the track, he said he felt a bit nervous. He wore a green and gold uniform, the colours of Australia. It was a perfect spring afternoon, cloudless, breezy, a bit of chill in the shade.
He had worried needlessly. Carbon withdrew from the 800 to concentrate on the sprints. Two other runners in the 95-99 age group also scratched, citing injury and illness.
So two age groups were combined. Gilmour was paired with Dumitru Radu, 90, a trim Romanian who wore a black bathing suit decorated with soccer balls and the logo of the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Animated, with a Popeye-ish look, Radu spoke German and told vivid stories complete with sound effects. He said he had been a wood cutter who fought in Russia in World War II. He hugged volunteers and drank brown liquid from a water bottle.
“Coca-Cola?” he was asked.
“Nicht Coca-Cola,” he said. “Kaffee Brasilien. Coca-Cola kaput!”
Before the race, the two men shook hands. Radu bowed. He seemed frail, keeping his legs wide and stiff as if running on stilts. But his form was overcome by determination and stamina. Radu had won the 8km cross-country race. Again, he took the lead.
Because the men were in different age groups, each would receive a gold medal if he crossed the finish line. Gilmour persisted with a run-walk style. He had not been on a track in more than a decade and was no longer accustomed to the long straightaways. Wind gusted in his face along the backstretch.
As both men headed toward the finish, the small crowd began clapping and rose to its feet. Alan Bell, the race director, said: “This is not athletics. This is more an example of the human spirit.”
Radu crossed first in 8 minutes, 59.53 seconds. Gilmour finished in 9:19.53. A small smile creased his face. Each runner sat in a chair and had a cup of water.
“I’m really pleased that I managed to finish,” Gilmour said.
Gold medals were placed around the runners’ necks in separate ceremonies. Each stood atop the podium as his national anthem was played.
“Well done, John!” Gina Grayson, 42, told Gilmour. She and her sister, Sue Malaxos, a marathoner at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, had been coached by Gilmour. Grayson brought her two children to watch him run and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“Everyone was standing on their feet,” Grayson said. “Good on you.”
Brian Kennedy, 83, a long-time friend, touched Gilmour on the shoulder and joked: “The drug-testing people are out there. They want to see you.”
Two more races remained on Gilmour’s schedule, but there would be no meeting with Dharam Pal Singh in the 400. The Indian runner did not show up for the 100. He said by telephone that he had received travel money from supporters but had not received an official entry card for the meet. So he could not obtain a visa.
There were no official entry cards, officials said. Was this an excuse by Singh? A misunderstanding? The mystery deepened.
“I don’t have any regrets for myself,” Singh said. “But I regret that my going to Australia would have increased the pride of India.”
There was other bad news.
Arvind Kumar Singh, a subdivisional magistrate, or civil servant, in the district where Dharam Pal Singh lived, said the authorities had received a complaint about him last year. It was related to an award he was to receive and whether he was eligible.
“We found his claim about his age as false,” Arvind Kumar Singh said.
A school transfer certificate had been found. Based on the certificate, he said, Dharam Pal Singh was “78 or so.” And he was not illiterate. The age was corrected on Singh’s election card, but he continued to use an old card “to hide his age”, the civil servant said.
This seemed to verify something a reporter had noticed earlier. Singh said he was illiterate but he could clearly read signs on the New Delhi metro rail system and emails on his mobile phone.
“I’d love to know just what age the man was,” Stan Perkins, president of World Masters Athletics, said. “Anything from 80 years and up, he would be competitive, without a doubt.”
Singh ran so well that he would probably still be competing in 10 years, Perkins predicted.
Sandy Pashkin, the organisation’s chief record keeper, laughed.
“That’ll make him 130?”
“Quite possibly,” Perkins said. — The New York Times