ALTHOUGH the athletic performance "envelope" expands incrementally in many realms of sport, that's clearly not the situation in senior competitions, where dramatic improvements continue to be made.
Take Harry Polites, for example. In May at the United States National Senior Sports Classic in San Antonio, this budding superstar of the 85-to-89-year-old set made a dramatic 49.4 percent improvement in the 1,500-meter run. The record had been 17 minutes, 11.84 seconds. When the Ventor, N.J., resident crossed the finish line, it was 8 minutes, 41.57 seconds. Altogether, he won seven gold medals in 13 events and also set a new record in the 800, chopping 37 seconds off the old mark.
Senior records are rapidly being written and rewritten partly because events for athletes of advanced years are still in their infancy.
The US biennial National Senior Sports Classic celebrated only its fifth anniversary this year and many state and regional Senior Games, held throughout the year, are younger than that.
The US National Senior Sports Organization based in Chesterfield, Mo., is the main keeper of American senior records - those turned in by individuals 55 and older. The group has kept records since its founding in 1985 and has very few unclaimed at this point. Most of the blanks are in the upper age brackets (90 to 94, 95 to 99, and 100-plus), a new frontier for senior athletes. They may be filled as current record holders "graduate" to higher levels.
Some senior athletes better their performance as they advance. Ross Carter, a javelin thrower from Eugene, Ore., who holds the national record in both the 75-to-79 and 80-to-84 categories, produced his best effort just last year. His 121-ft., 8-in. throw exceeds both his national records, but is not recognized as a record because it was not achieved at the National Senior Sports Classic. This may change in the future, but at the moment it simplifies matters to grant official status only to records set at the US National Senior Sports Organization's major multisport event.
At the latest Classic, 199 records were tied or broken in 18 sports. Sixty-seven of these occurred in track and field, another 52 were set in swimming.
The next National Senior Sports Classic will be held in Tucson, Ariz., in 1997, and the first International Senior Games are scheduled for April in Bermuda.
The accompanying charts offer a glimpse of what these athletes have accomplished and the strides they're making.