Let the Games Begin: Senior Olympic Festival evolves with the pandemic

By Laura Latzko

After a pandemic-fueled break, the Senior Olympic Festival will return this month, giving athletes the chance to show their prowess in a variety of events.

The Tucson Parks and Recreation Department’s event is Saturday, January 8, to Saturday, January 29, throughout Tucson.

“We want people to show up and feel prideful for being part of something,” says Joe Stubbins, a planning committee co-chair. “A lot of these people are active year-round, and we are just lucky enough to offer an activity that draws interest.”

At the Senior Olympic Festival, the events are not sanctioned, so athletes will not earn points for state games, Stubbins says.

“We consider our festival for fun and for pride,” he adds. “It’s one of those special activities that you can play cards or you can powerlift. We offer any activity in between those categories.”

Stubbins says it is important to have a variety of activities to keep it inclusive.

The participants take the games seriously. Leisure walkers meet throughout the year to exercise. The parks and recreation department offers facilities and classes for those who want to keep up on activities. In the summer, for example, a track and field program begins.

“It basically encourages people of all ages to get out there and be active, run, jump and throw,” Stubbins says. “It’s the only practice they will get before the Senior Olympic games.”

During the festival, nimble participants can take part in bowling, badminton, archery, shooting, trap and skeet, billiards, tennis, bocce, golf, handball, horseshoes, pickleball, powerlifting, racquetball, 5K and 10K races, slow-pitch softball, swimming, table tennis and volleyball.

Various track and field events are scheduled, too, including the discus, javelin, high jump, standing and running high jump, shot put, and 200- to 1,500-meter dashes.

Calmer events like bridge, cribbage, bingo, shuffleboard and Texas hold ‘em are set.

The events are broken down into age categories, starting with the 50 to 55 group. Women and men compete separately, except for bridge, cribbage, darts, shuffleboard and leisure walks.

Many popular events are returning, but 3-on-3 basketball, euchre, and air pistol and air rifle shooting were canceled due to a lack of space or the inability to socially distance. For some, coordinators were uneasy about the return of in-person games. Other activities were moved to different venues.

“We used to reserve a space at the University of Arizona’s track and field facility,” Stubbins says.

“Since COVID, they haven’t opened for outside usage and private rentals. Unfortunately, the Senior Olympic Festival falls into that category. We aren’t allowed to use the facility that we’ve used in years’ past.”

Some events, like badminton, are expected to be less popular this year due to COVID-19. 

“We don’t have open gym badminton for people to come in and practice, unfortunately,” Stubbins says.

“The ones who register this year are ones who are there strictly for fun or are confident enough in their skills that they didn’t lose it in a year and a half to two years.”

Billiards and pickleball have garnered high registration numbers, while bowling isn’t as popular this year.

“The times have never changed, and it’s the same exact event,” Stubbins says. “We just have a feeling a lot of people don’t want to be in a confined space for multiple hours, just for safety purposes.”

To play bridge, participants must be vaccinated, per the planners, Adobe Bridge Club.

Others have changed format, like darts and handball, the latter of which will be held over two days for social distancing.

“It costs us a little more in the long run because we are paying for an additional day at a venue, but it’s so much safer,” Stubbins says. “It’s much more organized, too. We aren’t rushing to get games in before 6 p.m. It was a change that’s for the better, and we think it’s something that we are going to stick to even after the pandemic.”

Stubbins hopes things will change for 2023, such as the return of disc golf and fishing.

“The pandemic has caused us to do a different type of thinking and planning than normal,” Stubbins says.


More Info

What: Senior Olympic Festival

When: Various times Saturday, January 8, to Saturday, January 29

Where: Various locations in Tucson

Cost: No registration fee; $2 for pins; $5 for T-shirts. Registration required online, by mail or in person

Info: 791-4931, tucsonaz.gov