"Age is just a number", as Joan Collins famously said. For some careers, that's certainly true. The best years can come later in life, along with the greatest earnings potential.
But we know that's not true for athletes. Despite that, is it possible to be an Olympic medalist at 50+?
Here they are organized horizontally by the age of the recipient. As you can see, the vast majority (86%) of winners are 18-35 years old.
As Jules Renard said, “It is not how old you are, but how you are old.”
If you’re over 50, your shot at becoming an Olympian (or “Oldlympian”) is not over. But how might you get there?
But three of them won an individual event and a team event in the same Olympics in this timeframe (one athlete also won another team event during the following games), while one other person won the individual event one Olympics, and with the team the next.
This doesn't mean the others aren't contributing to their teams' successes, but clearly these few are demonstrably winning on their own, as well.
It's worth pointing out that above all, it seems, winning an Olympic medal at 50+ is about leadership.
It's a well-known fact that in many sports, teams will try to recruit a grizzled veteran or two as part of their efforts to win championships because of their ability to lead from the locker room. In this data set, both older rowing medallists were coxswains - the people sitting at the front of the boat coaxing the rowers to perform at their best. And while I'm sure equestrianism requires athletic prowess from the rider, it must also largely be about the rider's ability to lead the horse to perform at its best. Leadership, wisdom, skills that increase with age, are clearly an advantage that leads to success in some sports and situations more than others.
In the end, it's an uphill climb to compete and win at the Olympics if you're in your forties, never mind your fifties. But it's not impossible. As you'll see below, most (but not all) of these people have had long careers competing in the Olympics before their later year successes. But there are exceptions worth investigating—6 of them never made an Olympics before 50! And several more competed only a couple or handful of times before that age.
The best advice to become an "Oldlympian", given recent history, is to learn to ride a horse and compete in the team Equestrian events. But you'd better start training now—the next Summer Olympics qualifying events will be in about two years!
Here you can see each 50+ medal-winner since 1980, in order by their most recent medal. For each, you can see how many times they competed or medaled before and after they turned 50.
Click a photo to read more about that athlete on Olympedia.org
All data for 1896-2016 comes from a dataset on Kaggle. Ages for about 3% of competitors (mostly pre-1980) were missing so they were removed from the dataset before analysis. Data for 2018 & 2021 comes from from Olympedia.org. Sports that have been part of the Olympics fewer than five times were eliminated from the average age by sport analyses.