A Japanese Olympian defies the age barrier

At age 71, equestrian Hiroshi Hoketsu will be the second oldest athlete to compete in Olympic history.

Ed Reinke/AP
Japanese dressage competitor Hiroshi Hoketsu, shown here at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, will be the oldest athlete at the London Olympic Games. In Japan, the 71-year-old is called the ‘hope of old men.’

When Hiroshi Hoketsu first competed in the Olympics, a postage stamp in the United States cost 5 cents, the Beatles had just made their debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and a Japanese company called Hayakawa Electric (now Sharp) had unveiled a newfangled instrument: an all-transistor electronic calculator. It cost as much as a car.

The year was 1964. Today, almost a half century later, Mr. Hoketsu is going back to the Olympics – as the second-oldest athlete in the history of the Games. By his mere appearance, the 71-year-old dressage competitor from Japan seems to exemplify everything that the Olympics are and aren't.

He decidedly isn't the archetype of a modern Olympian – young, hip, gym chiseled, the kind of person who'd star in an energy drink commercial in spandex. But he does embody many of the best attributes of the Games – stamina, discipline, consistent athletic excellence, and, most important, an uncanny ability to defy the perceived limits of age.

While many people Hoketsu's age would be settling into a retirement home, he is competing against world-class athletes 30 to 40 years his junior. No wonder that, in Japan, they call him the "hope of old men."

When a grinning Hoketsu, whose thick black hair has barely begun to show flecks of gray, showed up at a packed news conference in Tokyo in early April, the Japanese media, which usually celebrate youth, treated him like a Hollywood celebrity.

"I think it's good that I'm old. Otherwise, sports like equestrian games would not get much media attention," says Hoketsu, who trains in Aachen, Germany.

Hoketsu clinched an individual dressage slot for the London Games after he topped the International Equestrian Federation's rankings for the Asia-Oceania region following his victory in March at an international competition in Vidauban, France. It will be his third Olympic appearance, including two after his retirement from work. He was the oldest competitor at the 2008 Beijing Games and finished ninth in the team and 34th in the individual dressage events.

"He has a strong will to improve himself and is never self-satisfied," says Hideki Yamauchi, executive director of the Japan Equestrian Federation (JEF).

In the past, to keep himself in top competitive form, Hoketsu maintained a disciplined and ascetic life while living in Japan. He would get up at 5 every morning to go riding for one to two hours before work. He continued the regimen for three decades.

In Germany, he rises at 7:30 a.m., does general exercise for about an hour, and then gets on his horse. "It's a lot easier now," he says. "I try not to exercise too much."

The routine seems to be working. The diminutive Hoketsu (5 feet, 6 inches tall; 137 pounds) is as thin as a whip. "I think I have the same build as I did at the Tokyo Olympics," he says.

That was in 1964 when Hoketsu was a mere 23 years old. He placed 40th in the individual and 12th in the team jumping events at his home-country Games.

In London, Hoketsu will just miss being the oldest Olympian ever. That distinction goes to Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn, who competed at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, at age 72.

While age doesn't play as much of a factor in equestrian events as in other sports – the US team, for instance, will feature one rider who is 52 and another who is 18 – Hoketsu does seem to be a singular athlete. One reason for his prolonged competitiveness is his chemistry with Whisper, a 15-year-old mare. "He treats Whisper as a partner," says JEF's Mr. Yamauchi.

In fact, Hoketsu almost missed this year's Olympics, not because of his own health but because of Whisper's. But the horse suddenly recovered. "

It was like a miracle that took place, says Hoketsu. Now the rider will be trying for a fairy-tale ending to the story: winning a medal as a septuagenarian.

Sunday:  

Gladys Tejeda: Getting to the Olympics on borrowed shoes

Monday:  

Hiroshi Hoketsu: A Japanese Olympian defies the age barrier

Kayla Harrison: An American Olympian rebuilds a life through judo and friends

Tuesday:  

Mohamed Hassan Mohamed: Training for the Olympics in the shadow of war

Behdad Salimi: An Iranian Olympian carries the weight of a nation

Wednesday: 

Yamilé Aldama: A British track star jumps through a tough decade

Geeta Phogat: How an Indian wrestler defied gender taboos

Thursday:

Tahmina Kohistani: Afghan sprinter tries to beat the clock - and pollution

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