Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 6, 2011

Italy – a land of ancient runners

Exiting the EUR Fermi station on the outskirts of Rome last week, I was struck by the number of old people milling around. While I’m fully aware that Italy is one of Europe’s “oldest” countries in terms of age structure, what made me pause was that we were there for the Roma-Ostia half-marathon. Hence, every one of these elderly Italians was dressed in lycra and energetically jogging to and fro, warming up in the early morning chill of a Sunday in February. I seriously could not see a single person that looked under 35.

Now, there were almost 10,000 people registered to this event (9,482 runners on the day). Being on supporter duty, I had a D300 clicking away and even now, looking back at the photos, the only people that looked in their 20s were the elite runners plus a couple of random young’uns that looked as though they had been roped in by their parents. In every other major sporting event I’ve been to in Europe or Australia (including running, cycling and tri events), the age structure has been firmly centered around the 20- and 30-somethings, with many teenagers, a good smattering of more mature athletes, but relatively few people over 40.

By contrast, at the Roma-Ostia event about half the competitors seemed to fall into the 40-50 bracket, and I swear a third of competitors looked even older. As it turned out, a quick check of the results largely bore this out: by some quick and dirty calculations, 44% of competitors were born between 1961 and 1972 (hence 40-50 years old), and 31% were born before 1961 (older than 50).

A typical set of competitors in the Roma-Ostia Half-Marathon 2010

Compared to the two other half-marathons I’ve been to in the last couple of years – Paris and Geneva – this is pretty damn old. In Geneva, only 34% fell into the 40-50 age category, with 16% over 50. Paris was even younger on average – 28% in their 40s, and 15% over 50 years old (see Table 1).

Table 1: Age distribution of competitors in selected European half-marathons

Paris 2010 Geneva 2010 Rome 2011
under 30 N/A 14.6% 3.8%
30-40 N/A 35.5% 21.1%
40-50 27.7% 33.8% 44.1%
50-60 12.7% 12.3% 23.9%
60-70 2.7% 3.3% 6.0%
70-80 0.3% 0.0% 1.0%
UNDER 40 56.6% 50.2% 25.0%
OVER 40 43.4% 49.8% 75.0%

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In addition, in Rome there was a lower variance of fitness levels – everyone looked at least like they had been training, most people wore the colours of an Italian running club (98% of the Italians listed a club membership), and the longest queues were for those people pushing to get into the 1h40min start time – not a bad time category for a half by any means. No overweight fun-runners here; the first medical stop was 8km into the run, indicating high confidence on the part of the organisers. The results indicated that only 16% of the (on average, much older) runners finished with times over 2 hours. In Paris, more than 36% were slower than 2 hours, and in Geneva, 27%.

So why would the Rome half-marathon be so overwhelmingly dominated by fairly fit, middle-aged Italians? Or to phrase the mystery more precisely, first, why do so few young Italians take part, and then, why do so many fit, older Italians? This post is a rough attempt to make sense of this mystery, drawing on anectodal evidence from Italian friends, 3 months spent living there back in 2003 (plus yearly visits since) and a good dose of stereotyping. You’ve been warned.

Mystery A: Why so few young people?

Hypothesis 1: Substitutes for use of time on the part of Italian youth

Perhaps the first half of the mystery is partly explained by our experience at dinner the evening before, when we’d been hanging out with a selection of Rome’s 18-30 population. They were all carbo-loading on pizza and pasta, but according to them it was all in aid of the flirting, smoking and dancing, to be followed by a really solid sleep until midday. The thought of getting up early on a Sunday to run was completely alien to our friends given their competing time commitments.

It is certainly possible that our youth survey sample was too small, or biased by venue, and we were hanging out with a wholly unrepresentative set of relatively un-sporty types. It could be that there are whole swathes of Italian youth using their free time to train – but they are training for other things or in other ways. Perhaps the sporty young Italians are attracted to other sports other than long-distance running – football or handball perhaps.

Hypothesis 2: Young Italians want to look good in public

Now that I think about it, I’ve rarely seen anyone jogging around Rome or Bologna on the street, except for the odd person circling the Giardini Margherita. Compared to Geneva, Dublin, Sydney or London, it seems people just don’t jog much in the street in Italy. By contrast, the gyms are full – so perhaps many of those who want to keep fit prefer to go to the gym rather than exercise in public. This could be influenced by a number of factors, the strongest of which might be a desire to always look good in public (witness the level of couture on the evening giro). There could be a significant cultural element here about the appropriate way to cultivate and display “la bella figura” – having a red face and sweaty clothes is fine in the appropriate environment, which isn’t on the street. Italian gyms are pretty much all mirrors and posing men and women. According to our Italian friends, the gym is social and fun, while running is boring. Add in the smog from traffic and you get fewer people out on the streets in running gear.

When compared to other available options, then, half-marathons are incredibly uncool events for young Italians. Footballers, racing car drivers and cyclists seem to capture the Italian spirit more than long-distance runners. So maybe half-marathons are abandoned to older cohorts who are slightly less conscious of such sensibilities.

Hypothesis 3: Lack of resources on the part of younger Italians

Further, few of the young people we talked to had much money – they were all struggling to find jobs or taking really quite low-paying positions compared to their level of education just to get by – so paying (even if only EUR30) to go for a jog may have seemed silly (substituting a packet of cigarettes and two drinks at a bar for the half-marathon entry makes much more sense, it seems). Income inequality is high between generations in Italy, so perhaps young people just see themselves too poor to indulge in the luxury of a group sporting event. While 30 euros doesn’t seem to be a huge direct financial disincentive, perhaps when combined with good-looking running gear and the time needed to train, it adds up.

Interestingly, I’m told that in Ireland since the financial crisis, participation in community sporting events (particularly adventure racing) has skyrocketed along with the free time available to younger generations suddenly out of work. But what is different about Irish youth that they want to spend their free mornings and afternoons running up hills, while it seems Italians prefer smoking, sleeping and talking about Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties?

Mystery B: Why so many older people?

Turning to mystery B, part of the answer could of course be the inverse of the reasons above – older people may have fewer substitutes for their time on a weekend morning (the older they get, the truer this could be), are less concerned about appearance in public (even only a slight reduction could result in an outsized difference in distribution) and have ample resources (the inter-generational economic disparity argument).

In addition, another explanation could be that the health benefits of running are perceived to be significantly more important to older cohorts than to younger ones: the sense of concern over appearance that would drive a young person to a gym is replaced by a sense of concern for cardiovascular health that drives an older person to go for early-morning jogs.

Furthermore, those running-club outfits make me suspect that community in general has a lot to do with participation. The running club, either recently or traditionally, seems to have cultivated a solid group of older members that are willing to travel to take part in collective sporting events. I took quite a few photos of groups of 8-10 50 year olds who wanted to pose for the camera together – clearly larger groups of friends supporting each other yet all participating. Time, health benefits and community spirit seem to be combining to put a lot of older Italians into lycra, while failing to do the same for their children.

Conclusion – areas for further research

Pondering all of the above, I suspect that a better understanding of the generational elements impacting Italian communities could help me better understand both mysteries. Our younger Italian friends told us that few of them voted in elections, as they felt generally disenfranchised from both politics and the economy. This implies that the communities with which young people identify (and hence their participation in community-based activities) may be both more fragmented than older generations’ and more unstable, with the exception of course of the family as a central source of identity.

Perhaps older cohorts of Italians, possessing greater incentives and fewer barriers to participating in different communities, respond with higher levels of participation across a variety of activities – only one of which is the Rome-Ostia half-marathon.

Still, it was FRIGGIN WEIRD (and somewhat motivating) to see so many grey-haired old biddies smashing 1h30 along the long, boring road to Ostia. Good on ‘em.

Thanks to Isobel Davidson for actually running all the half-marathons, contributing ideas to this post and doing all the stats work. :)

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Responses

  1. I have actually read Nick that surprisingly there are lower teenage suicides in Italy because of the older people living at home with their extended families and therefore having an effect on the quality of life and stability of families, even when parents are working. It could be that the older populations are today not as consumed by technologies and the media. I know that, on first hand, my grandmother would be more aware of exercise than many of my friends are, which I do believe to be a generational trait. Perhaps, it is that more young people are moving away from their community in order to stay afloat in the mind numbing global world…..

    but these are just ideas… i thought this was an interesting subject!

  2. Not only are they old, but they add up to well over 100%. Remarkable folks.

    • Ah, good point. Will get my stats person onto it.

    • Fixed. Good catch Jesse. 75% over 40 years old. Unbelievable. If their times weren’t so good I’d suggest we get a group together to smash it next year.

  3. […] Italy – a land of ancient runners LikeBe the first to like this post. […]


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