I'll tell you what I'm looking forward to after I tell you what I'm looking back on. The first Summer Games I vividly recall were the Munich Olympics of 1972. Of course, I remember the tragedy. But I also distinctly remember feeling an early-adolescent, umm, appreciation of Cathy Rigby's flexibility and tone as she performed on the balance beam.

I'm dating myself, and that's the point. Eight Olympiads later, I'm crowding 50, and in a mood to celebrate a more enduring, transcendent sort of beauty. A tip of the hat, in that case, to the surprising number of elderly athletes who will be donning bifocals and quaffing Metamucil at the Olympic Village in Beijing. To this crowd, Dara Torres is a babe in the woods.

You've got Haile Satayin, an Israeli marathoner who claims to be 48, though his passport says he's 53. Satayin, who ran a dumbfounding 2:17.25 marathon in Athens -- good for 20th -- is back. And this time he's determined to avoid the senior moment he suffered in Greece, when he ran an extra lap around the track after already finishing the race.

Hiroshi Hoketsu, 67, of Japan will compete in dressage, a sport "you can do at a fairly advanced age," he told the Agence-France Press, "if you have an agreeable horse."

Canadian trapshooter Susan Nattras will be competing her sixth Olympics. She is 57 -- four years younger than her countryman, Ian Millar, an equestrian who will be riding in his eighth Games.

None of them, in my opinion, is as remarkable as the doyenne of Olympic cycling. Jeannie Longo, the aptly named Frenchwoman with 1,000 victories and 30 world and Olympic medals on her palmarès, cleaned up (as usual) in her country's recent national championships, winning the road race, time trial and, a month later, the individual pursuit. She will race the latter two events in Beijing, her seventh Olympics, at the age of 49.

Queen Jeannie is a highly educated, highly independent and occasionally overbearing woman who suffers neither fools nor the apparatchiks of the French Cycling Federation, which she has engaged in some epic battles down through the years. In a delightful 1992 story in the International Herald Tribune, Sam Abt described Longo as a monstre sacre: "Literally, the words mean a sacred monster -- an extraordinary character who dominates a field, often controversially, with slight regard for the niceties. A less literal translation might be 'holy terror.'"

While Longo has the best shot at a medal, all these forward-looking oldsters inspire me deeply. Unafraid to fail, defying the march of time, they call to mind the final verses of Ulysses, an Alfred Tennyson poem I discovered, of all places, at my chiropractor's office:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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