12 Summer Olympic Sports You're Not Too Old to Qualify For

Watching athletes at the Olympics is enough to fill anyone with a combination of awe and wistfulness. The awe is self-explanatory—who wouldn't be amazed by the athletic prowess of today's Olympians?

But the wistfulness might surprise you, especially if you have never dreamed of competing on an international athletic stage. And yet, the thought still sits there, niggling at the back of your mind, "What if, just what if, I missed my calling? What if, with the right training, I could have qualified for an Olympic sport?"

Oldest Olympians

You may not be 16 anymore, but that doesn't mean you have to hang up your hopes for Olympic gold. The oldest Olympian ever to compete was Oscar Swahn from Sweden, who became the oldest gold medalist in Olympic history at 64 years old when he participated in 1912 as a shooter in the single-shot running deer team. That wasn't even the end of Swahn's competitive years. He returned to the Games in 1920 as a 72-year-old, taking a silver medal in another team shooting event.

Man shooting a bow and arrow

Getty Images / Blake Little

Game Plan for Older Olympic Hopefuls

Granted, today's athletic events are more widely publicized and participated in than in the 1920s, making the competition a lot stiffer. But if you're really dedicated to making a name for yourself in sport, you may still have a shot at winning gold. If you're, say, 35 years old, you probably shouldn't expect to become a world-class gymnast.

Sometimes age really does matter. Instead, set your sights and train for one of the summer Olympic sports you're (hopefully) not too old to qualify for. 

Just remember, the road won't be easy—in addition to intense training, you'll need to have a natural talent and the type of genetic makeup that lends itself to Olympic success. Requirements vary from sport to sport, but it's fairly safe to say you'll need a slight build and incredible cardiovascular and muscular endurance to qualify as a marathon runner, Likewise, you'll need killer hand-eye coordination to have a shot at table tennis. Choose wisely, then buckle down and get to work.



Archery in Rio Olympics

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Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis almost made it to the 2000 Sydney Olympics as part of the United States archery team at the age of 43. She hadn't even picked up a bow and arrow until 1997 after watching the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and drawing inspiration from then-21-year-old Californian archer Justin Huish. Out of 300 archers vying for a spot on the 2000 Olympic team, Davis ended up an impressive 24th place. 

Overall, the age of competitive archers skews higher than the more well-known Olympic events, so competing as a 30-, 40- or even 50-year-old isn't unheard of. 

Important skills: Hand-eye coordination, proprioception, moderate ​upper body flexibility, moderate upper body strength, extreme mental focus


Equestrian Events

Equestrian at Rio Olympics

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As evidenced by New Zealander Brougham's presence at the Rio games at age 62, there's no doubt that athletes can qualify for equestrian events well into their golden years. But when aiming for horseback riding success, you need a horse that's equally skilled, trained, and prepared to compete. 

Horses are expensive. The highest level show jumpers, for instance, can cost six or seven figures. Yes—hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars. Plus, beyond the cost of the horse itself, you must pay for the care and feeding of the horse. This can be an almost insurmountable barrier to entry in the sport.  If money and time aren't a problem, though, then why not go for it? 

Important skills: Lower body and core strength, high comfort level with horses, an almost unending supply of money and time



Shooting in Rio Olympics

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Shooting, like archery, is a sport that's easier for people to start later in life because you don't have to have a particular body shape or size to participate. In fact, athletes competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics ranged in age from 16 to 55, with most falling between 26 and 40. See? There's still time for you to get started.

One thing that benefits older athletes is the mental focus the sport requires. Sheer strength isn't as important as mental strength, and mental strength can improve over time and with experience and age. 

Important skills: Hand-eye coordination, proprioception, mental toughness, moderate upper body and core strength, cardiovascular endurance to keep the heart rate low



2016 rio marathon olympics

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If you think you're up for running 26.2 miles at sprint-level speeds, then you can certainly try your hand at marathon running. Out of the six Americans in the 2016 Rio Games, only one of them (Jared Ward) was under 30. Meb Keflezighi claimed the prize as the oldest on the team at 41 years. 

The skew toward older athletes in marathon running is in part due to the older age of entry into the sport, as many marathoners don't get their start until their late teens or 20s. 

Important skills: Extreme cardiovascular endurance, extreme muscular endurance (particularly of the lower body), mental toughness



Triathlon in Rio

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Triathlon, like marathon running and cycling, is a sport many athletes don't take up until their teens or 20s. But because of the strong showings required across three tough endurance events, athletes tend to be a little younger. For instance, the American team in the 2016 Rio Olympics ranged in age from 23 to 34, with most athletes sitting right around 30 years old.

The trick here is how good you have to be in all three events—cycling, swimming, and marathon running. It takes a special genetic makeup to succeed in all three areas. 

Important skills: Extreme cardiovascular endurance, extreme muscular endurance, muscular strength, particularly of the lower body and core, mental toughness


Road Cycling

Cycling in Rio Olympics

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Only one of the athletes participating in road cycling for Team USA at the Rio Olympics was under 30 years old (Taylor Phinney). And the oldest cyclist, Kristin Armstrong, is a three-time Olympic gold medalist who didn't start focusing on cycling until she was 27 years old, after being diagnosed with the osteoarthritis that ended her running and triathlon career.

The fact that she was able to land her third gold a day before turning 43 is pretty impressive. Who knows, maybe you could be the next Kristin Armstrong. 

Important skills: Extreme cardiovascular endurance, extreme muscular endurance, extreme lower body strength and power, mental toughness



Rowing in Rio Olympics

Matthias Hangst / Getty Images

It may come as a surprise, but it's not unusual for universities to struggle to fill their rowing teams, especially in areas of the country where rowing is less known, without the high school or club teams to feed into the college level.

So it's not unusual for Olympic-level rowers to get their start in their late teens or 20s. This leads to an older average Olympian age, which sits right around 30 years old. Just be aware that rowing is hard and often requires early mornings. If the thought of 5:00 a.m. training sessions on a river sounds miserable, you might want to consider a different sport. 

Important skills: Cardiovascular endurance, extreme full-body muscular endurance, upper body muscular strength and power, comfort in the water


Table Tennis

Table Tennis in Rio Olympics

Phil Walter / Getty Images

Table tennis at the Olympics is nothing like a quick game of ping-pong in the garage with your kids. This sport is serious, and seriously hard, requiring a surprising level of fitness. You must have the speed, agility, and hand-eye coordination to keep a volley alive. So, you may be surprised to hear that table tennis could be one of the more challenging "older athlete" sports to take up.

That said, it's not unheard of for older athletes to compete at the highest level. For instance, the 2016 men's bronze medal-winning team from Germany consisted of a 27-year-old, Dimitrij Ovtcharov, and two 35-year-olds, Timo Boll and Bastian Steger (pictured). 

Important skills: Speed, agility, hand-eye coordination, cardiovascular endurance



Sprint Canoeing in Rio Olympics

Patrick Smith / Getty Images

Canoeing and kayaking, not unlike rowing, runs the gamut in terms of age, with Team USA athletes ranging in age from lower 20s to upper 30s. The nice thing about canoeing is this individual or doubles sport doesn't require a slew of people to fill up a boat, so it's feasible that, with the help of a coach, you could take it up on your own time and dime.

You do, however, need access to a large body of water, as well as some serious upper body strength and power. 

Important skills: Cardiovascular endurance, total body muscular endurance, extreme upper body muscular strength and power, comfort in the water


Water Polo

Water Polo in Rio Olympics

Jamie Squire / Getty Images

Team sports are hard to get a foothold in later in life, largely because the best athletes in the world have been playing since they were kids—for evidence, look no further than basketball, soccer, and volleyball.

One possible exception is water polo. While the sport is certainly filled with athletes who have been playing since childhood, as a whole, it's a lesser-known and participated-in event. This means if you can find a team, and you're willing to train like a madman or woman, and you have a whole lot of natural talent, you might just be able to eke out a late-life spot. 

Important skills: Cardiovascular endurance, total body muscular endurance, upper body strength and power, comfort in the water, generally well-balanced sports-related skills including hand-eye coordination, agility, speed, and power



Person golfing

Getty Images / Bob Thomas

Golf was an Olympic sport in 1904, however, didn’t return to the Olympics until Tokyo 2021. Golf is one of those sports that can be played in your 30s, 40s, 50s— and beyond! In fact, peak driving distance occurs between the ages of 30 to 39 years old. There are several professional golfers that continue to make their mark on the sport. Tiger Woods was 43 when he won the Masters in 2019. Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship at 50, while Stewart Cink won the RBC Heritage at age 47. Other notables include Bubba Watson (age 43), Adam Scott (age 41) and Zach Johnson (age 45). Professional golfer Annika Sorenstam won the 2021 U.S. Senior Women’s Open at age 50.

To qualify for the US Olympic Golf Team, you must be ranked in the top of the Official World Golf Rankings.  Only two players per country can participate, however up to four players can participate if they are ranked in the top 15. In the 2021 Olympics, the US men’s team had four players and they were all in their 20s, however, Rory McIlroy is currently ranked number three at age 34—so you never know which older players will get a chance to play in the Olympics. If you want to play golf in the Olympics, start working on your game to earn a spot on the PGA tour. 

Important skills: Hand-eye coordination, ​upper body flexibility, upper body strength, lower body strength, mental focus



Sailing race

Getty Images / Onne van der Wahl

Sailing has actually been an Olympic sport since the beginning–in the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. This sport has many older Olympians who have competed and won. Santiago Raul Lange is an Argentine Olympic sailor who was 59 when he competed in his sixth Olympic game. He won the gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Enrique Fiueroa is a Puerto Rican sailor who competed at the age of 57.

To get into sailing, it is best to take sailing lessons. You can also learn from renting a boat or having a friend take you sailing. You can also check out the US Sailing website for sailing opportunities near you, where you can learn how to sail small boats, keelboats, powerboats, and windsurfing. You can learn to sail on an ocean or lake, however, depending on how far you want to drive, it is helpful to have a body of water nearby.

Important skills: Upper body strength, core strength, grip strength, stamina, attention to detail, endurance

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Laura Williams, MSEd, ASCM-CEP
Laura Williams is a fitness expert and advocate with certifications from the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine.