August 15, 2008

No Olympian gymnast may now be younger than 16 years of age. There will be no more Nadia Com─ânecis ... officially.

Women's gymnastics is a brutal sport, with a very fine line between peaking and the puberty which invariably ends it. Younger gymnasts are lighter, more willing to take the risks necessary to learn the dazzling manoeuvres. Women with curves flip and twirl very differently than young girls. Breasts and hips get in the way.

Thus to make it to those Olympic events is to start training almost in kindergarten, as Nadia did. Every year later than that is a year lost, perhaps permanently. It is thus desirable for training purposes to hold off puberty as long as possible, and it is entirely likely that many resort to drug regimens to do it. There are schools of thought which argue that training young girls in the way high-level competitive gymnastics requires so undermines their normal physical development that it is almost tantamount to child abuse: yet competitive gymnasts continue to be in high demand in every dominant country of the world.

Mental maturity is a different question, and not as easy a one to answer. Certain it is that children are capable of far, far more than they are given in a conventional western education, but how young should an athlete reasonably be before they dedicate their lives to a single focus? Are duty and drive to excellence more valuable than balance in life or normal socialisation or even "having a life"? Older athletes, such as those who won gold in the men's eights, can count several engineering degrees and even an upcoming PhD in mathematics among their number, but very young athletes may have other education compromised in the pursuit of their sport, and indeed at least one athlete in China has said that he did not have the skills to pursue any career outside the sporting community, even though he would be set for life financially.

Yet another question might be why this age limit should be applied specifically to this sport, and not to others which are just as dangerous, just as mentally demanding, just as permanently crippling. Why allow 14-year-old Tom Daley and not 14-year-old Yang Yun? What justifies allowing competition at a younger age limit in this sport, where youth and lack of adult power is not an advantage, when it is not allowed in the other, where youth is?

Not surprisingly, the coaches of different countries answer these questions in very different ways -- but invariably the coaches from the so-called "collectivist" countries consider their charges much more capable of intense training and focus and competition at younger ages than others. Additionally, the sports ministries in these countries are willing to dedicate much greater effort to identify and then begin training these athletes as early as possible.

Thus any age limit cannot help but have political overtones. A younger age limit does favour cultures which emphasise duty and focus over individualism, but the edge is noticeable primarily in those disciplines which also peak early; the net effect is much less than in the days before the line between professional and amateur blurred. At the same time the Rumanians and now the Chinese have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the highest technical and artistic marks in gymnastics are almost always achieved by athletes intensely trained from very young ages. It seems almost the exact inverse of the peak pattern of other sports -- yet it may well be that many western nations will decide these particular gold medals may not worth the societal cost.

Another relevant question might be whether a younger competitive age might possibly be physically better for a gymnast. Injuries happen in this sport, sometimes terrible ones. The canon wisdom is that such severe training during a period of life when skeletal structure is still evolving is more likely to cause injury. However, not only would any injuries a younger gymnast sustains be more likely to fully heal, but she might also be able to retire earlier, and thus experience puberty somewhere closer to the normal range. The truth is that there is remarkably little real research on the subject ... perhaps because we may be reluctant to face what we find.

After all, the world and athletic community both seem to want young gymnasts.

Before we decide whether an age limit is appropriate, we must first decide what it is we are actually trying to accomplish by setting it.

In this Olympics, three Chinese gymnasts are believed to be under 16 years of age: Jiang Yuyuan, He Kexin, and Yang Yilin. All three are part of the team which won gold in the all-around in women's gymnastics. In contrast to the passport information offered by Chinese authorities, previous event registration suggests a much younger age. The China Central Television (CCTV) website originally ran a profile for Yang Yilan showing that she was actually 14 years old: the government says this was a mistake. Two online records of official registration lists, as well as a 2007 national registry of Chinese gymnasts, show He Kexin's birthday as being January 1, 1994. One Chinese article on Xinhua documents He Kexin as having been 13 years old at an event only nine months before the Olympics. This article, along with any data under Chinese government control, is no longer Internet-accessible ... although the Google cache is proving hard to circumvent.

Independent of the current Olympics, Yang Yun has admitted on CCTV that she was 14 when she competed and won bronze in the 2000 Olympics. Of course, the boycott (over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan!) was rather overshadowing other issues at the time, and in any case Nadia Com─âneci had competed only four years earlier, and won perfect tens.

The rules exist, their purpose at least partly to create a level playing field among gymnasts insofar as possible. Whether they -- or even the nature of the event -- are appropriate is another question altogether.

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