Still Running at 119? Not So Fast


For four years, officials said, they had patiently requested that Dharam Pal Singh provide reliable evidence to verify his birth date: school records, military records, baptismal records, medical records, school records of his children.

“We have absolutely nothing to prove how old he really is,” Pashkin said. “He could be 80; he could be 100. We don’t know.”

Through the years, Singh had not been consistent in listing his age at meets, officials said. One said that he registered for this world masters championship as a 117-year-old, not a 119-year-old. But he was given the benefit of the doubt, and his entry was accepted, with an asterisk.

If he traveled to Perth, Singh would be allowed to compete in the 95-to-99 category. Any record that he set would not be validated, but any medal that he won would be awarded. A duplicate medal would be given to any competitor he beat. Everyone else’s age in that group had been verified.

There were mixed feelings among meet officials. Singh might distract news media attention from all other competitors. But, whatever his age, his presence would promote healthy living. And he might also draw bigger crowds. People could decide for themselves how old he appeared.

Tall and thin, wearing a turban and a beard, Singh was said by officials who had seen him run to possess a fluid stride and a great sense of theater. Before races, he sometimes went into the grandstand to be photographed. And he pulled out his cellphone to speak to someone, or to pretend to speak to someone.

“When he runs the 100, he spends five minutes cheerleading,” Winston Thomas of Britain, the secretary of World Masters Athletics, said with a chuckle. “Come on. At that age, who does that?”

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Awards Singh has received for his running. He has not been able to provide the kind of age verification required by the overseers of masters records, a problem not uncommon for competitors from countries once or still considered emerging nations.

Credit
Vivek Singh for The New York Times

Perkins, the president of World Masters Athletics, said he, for one, hoped that Singh showed up.

“We like the old guy,” Perkins said. “He’s a really lovely man. Look, he probably really has no idea how old he is, to be quite honest.”

Talk of Jealousy

Dharam Pal Singh arrived for an interview in New Delhi carrying his own traveling bag and a handbag. He did not wear glasses or use a walking stick. For two or three hours in the company of a reporter, he appeared alert and comprehending.

His passport said his birthday was Oct. 6, 1897. The same date appeared on his election voting card and his permanent account number, a code used for taxes. These are all valid government documents but not the primary documents to certify age.

Singh said he did not have a birth certificate. He said he was illiterate and did not have a school certificate, either. His mother provided a horoscope, which became the basis of his age, he said, but he was not carrying it with him.

His eldest son, born in 1949, was also illiterate and lacked a birth certificate and a school certificate, Singh said. He also said that none of his contemporaries in his village were still alive.

Singh carried two more documents. One listed him as the first-place finisher at 200 meters (50.26 seconds) for sprinters 100 and over at the 2014 Malaysian Masters Athletics Championships.

The other document was perhaps more significant.

It was an age certificate, dated May 21, 2014, and stamped and issued by the chief medical officer of the Meerut district in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Singh had not provided any documentary evidence to substantiate his age, the certificate said. But, based on general appearance and X-rays taken at P. L. Sharma Hospital Meerut, Singh appeared to be “100+”.

It was unclear how credible the certificate was. But it was signed by the chief government doctor in the region where Singh lived.

Those who accuse him of inflating his age “are jealous of my health, my age, my running,” Singh said, speaking Hindi.

“People say I do not look like 119,” he said. “If I walk with a stick and with a bent back, then I would look like 100-plus. Without a stick, with a straight back, I look like 80- to 90-plus. My good health has become my misfortune.”

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One of Singh’s newspaper clippings.

Credit
Vivek Singh for The New York Times

Age fraud was uncommon at the world masters championships because there was not much incentive beyond a medal and a certificate, said Ken Stone of La Mesa, Calif., the founder and editor of masterstrack.com and a watchdog over age-group running.

“It’s much more common to find evidence of doping than to find evidence of age fraud,” Stone said.

Yet, within the niche sport, there had been a small number of high-profile cases of masters athletes who performed remarkable feats but could not satisfactorily prove their age to record keepers.

An ostentatious incident, Stone said, had occurred at the 2011 world meet in Sacramento, Calif. A 46-year-old Egyptian named Mohamed Megahed finished 14th in the long jump in the 45-49 age group. Then he borrowed a bib and entered the 50-54 age group, furtively seeking a better result against older competitors, only to be disqualified.

Douglas Kalembo, an Olympian who represented Zambia at the 1988 Seoul Games, appeared in 2010 to become the first 50-year-old to run faster than 50 seconds in the 400 meters. But his mark was never ratified, masters officials said, because of conflicting documents that suggested he might have been 39 or 40 at the time instead of 50.

In September 2015, a dispute arose about which of two men, both said to be 105, had become the world’s oldest, fastest sprinter at 100 meters. Guinness World Records sided with Hidekichi Miyazaki of Japan. World Masters Athletics sided with Stanislaw Kowalski of Poland.

At the time, officials also wrestled with the case of an 80-ish Greek man named Symeon Symeonidis. His father was said to have altered his birth certificate, making him appear younger so that he could be eligible for food rations after World War II.

But the story could not be verified, said Kurt Kaschke, a German who is president of European Masters Athletics. Symeonidis, Kaschke said, was later penalized for age falsification.

Kaschke wrote a plaintive letter about the uncertainty that officials faced with some of the most elderly runners:

Was a birth certificate valid if the original no longer existed? What should be done about athletes born during the First or Second World War, when many records were destroyed? How could a birth date be proved when a government was not able to verify a birth on a particular day? Or when a country did not issue birth certificates?

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