By Sola Mahoney
On Saturday July 24th — the second day of the recent Olympic Games in Japan – Zaza, a 12-year-old table tennis player from Syria and the youngest athlete in the Tokyo games, played a match against an Austrian woman, Liu Jia who at the age of 39 was more than three times Zaza’s age.
If the age of 39 sounds a bit old for an Olympian to you, then I should probably let you know you that she was far from the oldest competitor at this year’s Games. That honour went to the Australian equestrian, Mary Hannah, a grandmother who, at the age of 66, was competing in her seventh Olympics. Mary was more than 50 years older than Zaza, the youngest competitor. Yet even at 66 Mary is not the oldest Olympian ever. In 1920 a Swedish shooter named Oscar Swahn competed in his third and final Olympics at the age of 72.
One reason why this wonderful festival of sports can boast such a wide range of ages competing against each other is because there is no specific age limit for taking part in the Olympics. You can be as young as 12-year-old Zaza, or you could already be a grandparent in your 60s or 70s. Regardless of your age, you would still be welcomed with open arms into the Olympic Village where all the athletes stay.
The new Olympic motto now reads “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”, which expresses the aspirations of the Olympic movement. Not only in its athletic and technical sense, but perhaps more importantly from a moral and philosophical perspective. It reflects a philosophy, a belief that as a community of men and women of all ages – from young boys and girls to grandmothers and grandfathers – we can all play and compete together. We can work together to bring the best out of each other, spurring each other on to greater and greater heights of achievement — all for the ultimate benefit of society.
If this all sounds like a special and unique experiment, so it should. I would venture to say that there is no other festival like it. We are all so much more accustomed to seeing society broken down into social groups and groupings which invariably end up competing against each other. This is usually on a zero-sum basis so that if one person wins someone else must necessarily lose. We seem to have a natural tendency to stratify our communities — and ultimately our countries — along so many different lines: according to our ethnicity, according to our religion, our political affiliation — and yes, even according to age.
As the presidential election of December 2021 gets ever closer for us here in The Gambia, and as the political stakes grow higher and higher, we are seeing our country becoming increasingly polarized along some of these very same fault lines.
The size and power of the youth vote is growing, and with it the undeniable importance of addressing the burgeoning issues of youth. With an estimated 65% of the population under the age of 30, this is completely understandable. But this seems to be leading to more and more calls for the old guard, the oldies, to be moved out of the way, so that the youth can assume their rightful leadership positions in our society. Indeed, during the consultations around the draft constitution last year, there was much talk and debate about the appropriate age limit for the presidency, many going as far as to suggest that anyone vying to be President had to be under the age of 60.
Now admittedly Africa has had more than its fair share of older leaders who insist on clinging on to power until their dying days; and this has understandably encouraged many to call for the wholesale removal of the older generation from political leadership, permanently relegating them to a backseat.
Yet it need not be this way. If we look at the situation objectively and dispassionately, putting aside our own age biases, and if we consider the limited human resources that we have at our disposal in The Gambia, we will perhaps realize that we do not really have the luxury of side-lining wholesale any of these meagre resources.
Personally, I feel that we all need to be on the field of play, with our A game, working together, encouraging one another and lifting each other to greater heights — all to the benefit of ‘the Gambia our homeland’.
After all many of our older persons over 60 are endowed with resources and talents that have been built up and developed over a lifetime of experience, and which we, as a lower income country, can scarcely afford to ignore or let go to waste. And let’s remember that there is plenty of evidence from some of the more advanced economies that shows that some of our most productive years as human beings can come after the age of 60.
I believe that what we need is a new approach — a new mindset — maybe even a new model for living. We need an approach that doesn’t pit the Baby Boomers against the Millennials; one where there’s no tension between Gen X and Gen Z. But rather one that encourages, nurtures, and champions the idea of generations not just living side by side and cohabiting the same space, but living together, intermingling in a way where they draw strength from one another.
I suggest that we would all be better off if we lived in a world where the older experienced professional is infused by the energy and innovation of the young millennial; where the youthful exuberance of the young entrepreneur is tempered and given focus and direction by the wisdom and experience of the retiree; where grandfathers and grandmothers are introduced to the wonders of handheld technology by the very grandchildren they are baby-sitting.
In short, we want a world where we are all engaged in what we might call intergenerational living. And where, like the Olympic Village in Tokyo — and I dare say like the archetypal African village of yesteryear — we find a way of accommodating all ages. We must find a way for different generations to live together in symbiotic harmony. We must not allow ourselves to become polarized by the rhetoric of vote-hunting politicians and fall into their trap of seeing each other as archenemies fighting over our limited resources. Instead, we should all aspire to live like our intergenerational Olympians.