Older athletes are discovering that they still have a shot at a national medal. In June, 3,500 of them will converge in St. Louis to compete in the second biennial National Senior Olympic Games. Besides sweating it out in traditional events such as tennis, cycling and track and field, they'll challenge one another in recreational games including shuffleboard, badminton and horseshoes.

Those who don't place will still come out winners. Says Ken Marshall of the U.S. National Senior Olympics Foundation: "It's very exciting to be in a national event. That's something many (participants) had long thought passed them by."Local Senior Olympic Games were first held in Southern California in 1969. Today, a variety of sponsors, including government departments of aging and parks and recreation, host more than 100 such competitions in 35 states. The purpose of the games remains to promote fitness among Americans age 55 and older.

"It's fun to compete and win, but it's also fun to get out and participate," says Marshall, who helped organize the first National Senior Olympics in 1987. He adds: "These aren't lifelong jocks. . . . More than half (of the participants) had never competed in their particular sport before age 50."

To qualify for the national games, senior Olympians typically place first, second or third in local competitions. Men and women compete separately in five-year age divisions.

Although it's too late to qualify for this year's national games, there's time to shape up for the 1991 events. To find out about Senior Olympic competitions in your area, contact U.S. National Senior Olympics, 220 S. Hanley Road, St. Louis, MO 63105, (314) 726-4550.

QUESTION: A friend in her 50s recently bought a life-insurance policy that offers nursing-home coverage as well. She says that the policy's long-term-care feature offers an inexpensive way to insure against future nursing-home expenses. For this reason, she recommends that I buy a similar policy. Before I do anything, can you tell me more about it?

ANSWER: A handful of insurance companies, including ITT, CNA, Security Connecticut and First Penn-Pacific, now offer consumers the chance to attach long-term-care riders to their universal life-insurance policies. This arrangement allows all or a portion of the policy's death benefit to be "prepaid" in monthly installments to a living policyholder should he or she enter a nursing home.

Monthly benefits for nursing-home care typically amount to 2 percent of the policy's face value until about half of the death benefit has been paid. At least one company allows total payments equal to the policy's full face amount. Benefits not used during the policyholder's lifetime pass to the beneficiary at death.

Because the company is simply advancing the death benefit, not paying out more money, long-term-care riders can cost as little as $100 a year on a $100,000 universal policy. By contrast, "stand-alone" long-term-care insurance policies may cost five times that amount.

But determining whether the riders are good buys is complicated. Because most were introduced only in the past year, there is a dearth of actuarial information indicating whether the long-term-care riders are over- or under-priced. According to James Hunt of the National Insurance Consumers Organization, they may represent an opportunity for insurance companies "to tie something to the sale (of universal-life policies) that is extremely profitable . . . and on principle should be avoided."

Moreover, the Internal Revenue Service has not yet ruled on the question of taxation of nursing-home benefits payable under these riders. At issue is whether to treat them as health-insurance benefits, which are tax-exempt, or life-insurance proceeds, a portion of which may not be. Until this question is resolved, consumers should consult their tax counselors.

Also, evaluating and comparing policies can be extremely difficult when different types of insurance are bundled in one package. Shoppers may wind up buying too much or the wrong kind of insurance.

Says Hunt: "It doesn't make sense to buy these policies for their long-term-care benefits" unless you need the life insurance as well. Be aware that universal-life policies, which accumulate a cash value from the premiums paid, are considered poor buys if surrendered during the first five to 10 years of the policy. Older policyholders in particular may pay "enormous" sales fees if they cancel their policies early, Hunt notes.

Also keep in mind that long-term-care riders may cost less because they offer less than some stand-alone policies. For instance, if you want benefits for home care and coverage that start soon after the policyholder enters a nursing home, look for a free-standing long-term-care policy.

These concerns underscore the need for interested buyers to examine the new policies carefully. While recognizing that "the product is viable," Carol Olson of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners urges consumers to scrutinize disclosure statements about policy costs, investments and benefits.

Georgiana Smith of the American Council of Life Insurance suggests consumers keep their eyes open: "The industry is learning fast. . . . More (of these policies) will be offered, and they may get better" with time.

C) 1989 Washington Post Writers Group