Beijing Beat: Age Discrimination in Gymnastics

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There’s been much hoopla over whether or not the female Chinese gymnasts who won the gold medal in the team competition last nightare of age.

Writes NBC News: “Yang Yilin, a medal contender in the all-around and uneven bars, was born Aug. 26, 1993, according to the 2004, 2005 and 2006 registration lists previously posted on the Web site of the General Administration of Sport of China. That would make Yang only 15 later this month. Gymnasts have to be 16 during the Olympic year to be eligible for the games.”

Two other gymnasts on the team might be too young to compete: Yang Yili and He Kexin, both medal contenders.

The LA Times quotes the Chinese coach, claiming that at 13 He Kexin was ready to compete in an event in 2007 where the age limit could only be between 13 and 15 years of age.

Though many will cry “uncle” over China’s alleged unfair advantage, the truth is that the Chinese team’s routines are so much harder, they started out two points ahead before executing a single flip.

The rumors have caused outspoken U.S. coach, Bela Karolyi, to unleash a series of humorous invectives against the Chinese team. He called the teeny tiny gymnasts, “half people,” and said, “”These people think we are stupid.” He pointed out that trusting the passport information coming from an authoritarian government is laughable, as they can change whatever they want to fit their needs.

Though Karolyi’s method of objection isn’t exactly elegant, his point is correct. Pitting lean, young, fit 13 and 14 year-olds, who are up to 30 pounds lighter than their 17-year old battle-scarred competitors is not fair, and gives them a distinct advantageone, that he argues, they don’t even need to use because they have a fair number of of-age competitors who could cream the U.S.. Then, there is the psychological advantage. The younger you are the less self-doubt creeps in; the less you “psych” yourself out. This is a huge factor in gymnastics. Physically, these gymnasts have done these routines and practiced these repetitions so many times they could have done them in their sleep. It’s their minds that get in the way.

Ten years ago, the age issue wasn’t even a matter of contention. Nadia Comaneci was 14 when she stunned the world with seven perfect tens in Montreal ’76. American gymnast Dominique Moceanu won the national All Around title in 1995 when she was just 13 and 1/2, but after a series of hang-wringing books and articles about the exploitation of little girls in gymnastics, the F.I.G, decided to put the “women” back in women’s gymastics and implemented the age requirement—to compete in an Olympics, a gymnast must turn 16 the year of the Games.

This has caused all sorts of problems. On the one hand, with no age requirement, the sport could have devolved into an event featuring nothing but 11 and 12 year olds. On the other hand, instating an age requirement significantly narrows the window of time that a gymnast has to compete at her peak. In gymnastics, the Olympics are the pinnacle, and if a gymnast peaks at 14 or 15, she might not ever squeak into a Games.

There is also the mean spectre of puberty; because many of these gymnasts are training 8 or 10 hours a day, the onset of puberty is delayed often until they are 15 or 16. Kristie Phillips, once touted as the next Mary Lou, saw puberty kill her Olympic dreams with a few inches and extra pounds. Phillips attempted a comeback nearly 10 years later, at the age of 27. She didn’t do half-bad, either.

Curiously, one option that is not discussed is including the Juniors, in a scaled-down version of competition at the Olympics. There are Junior World Championships, so why not an Olympic competition for them, too? An Olympian is an Olympian, after all.

There is a flip side to all of this: German team member, Russian Oksana Chusovitina. She is considered one of the medal contenders for the vault, and is competing in her fifth Olympics at the age of 33. And, she’s a mom.

Two videos: One from her vaulting at this year’s World Cup finals where she took the gold in the vault and her 18 years ago at a Russia in a regional competition.

Oksana Chusovitina 2008 World Cup Doha Finals VT

Oksana Chusovitina vault 1990 USSR vs the World

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