« Crude Oil From Trees. Really. | Main | Tech Policy Bleg »

August 14, 2008


Well, a sizable portion of the US soccer team are imports 4-5 years older than they claim to be, which is especially important when it comes to U-17, U-18 competitions etc.

I don't really care in either case, the performance is the performance, if you're the best, you're the best.

I think that there is this big zone called puberty that throws a real monkey wrench into performance and training in gymnastics, so a younger, more flexible, and definitely less questioning performer is going to do well, especially when subjected to the kinds of training that they are.

This is a non-expert opinion, if that wasn't readily apparent.

The problems with women's gymnastics could mostly be solved with scoring changes. If the sport was changed to reward strength moves, as men's gymnastics does, you'd see older competitors in a hurry. In my opinion, it would also be better to watch.

I think I heard somewhere that the center of gravity is higher in tiny little kids, which somehow helps. I have no idea how.

Otoh, it would be bad for the vault, I think.

I'd be surprised if there's a decent amount of gymnasts in China that would be able to handle their ridiculous training program until they're 16-20. That's probably a pretty big factor in their young gymnasts being their best.

A take from Ezra Klein here:
Bottom line, some events do need strength, but those are mainly the pommel horse and rings, which are included in men competition but not on women ones.
And it seems lighter is better on uneven bars, though I don't know about vault.
I should warn that I don't really know anything about gymnastics, I'm just repeating what I run into in the last couple of days.

For instance, being tiny seems to be a disadvantage on the uneven bars.

If I may stretch my memory back to the hazy mists of my childhood gymnastics lessons, no. Growing made uneven bars harder. Being little and light meant it took less strength to do crazy things, and one also had less momentum to deal with. If I recall correctly. Which at this point, given how long ago it's been, I'll not be astonished if I don't.

I remember reading when the rule was changed that a reason for it was that as young girls entered puberty the added weight to hips and bosom was a detriment to winning ladies gymnastic events. Young ladies were trying to counteract that by literally starving themselves and delaying puberty. The hope was that by eliminating the very young that the slightly older young women would be competing against others of more mature body type and be more likely to not harm themselves with too strict of a diet and to allow themselves to mature naturally.
Anyhow, that's what I read.

Being short helps more than anything.

Four key questions on the China gymnasts controversy

SI.com: Why is there an age limit in gymnastics?

Swift: It was instituted primarily for the mental health of the athletes. Being 14 and having those Olympic or world championship expectations put on you is unreasonable and very difficult. There's also the question of the physical health of the athletes because their bones are still growing and they are trying -- and often completing -- these very difficult and complicated tricks. The question is whether they would do them anyway if they were not Olympic-eligible and maybe the answer is yes. But these are very dangerous tricks, and the older you can make the athletes and the more their bodies have developed, the safer they are.

SI.com: What effect has age restriction had on international competition?

Swift: It has had an impact. Nadia Comaneci was 14 when she won in Montreal in 1976. Four years later, she did well. She won a couple of medals but did not win the all-around medal and she was not the dominant gymnast she was as a 14 year old. So there is a physical advantage to being smaller, more flexible and quicker. We see this in figure skating, which has the same rule. The hips, when they have not developed, spin quicker. That enables the competitors to do more complicated routines. In gymnastics, it's flips. If you are smaller, you can flip more. Some people also think the younger athlete does not feel as much pressure, so it has an advantage in that respect, too.

I think another advantage seems to be injury. When you get past puberty you don't rebound as quickly from an injury.

I also think after puberty flexibility begins to go down hill-with gymnasts who practice every day they are still going to be more flexible than the average woman, but comparatively the younger girls seem to be more flexible.

Although I admit I prefer watching the developed and stronger gymnasts do their routines. I would love to see them add some of the strength oriented rotations to the women's event. Not necessarily exactly what the men have, but ones that would provide an advantage to the developed and stronger gymnast. There is a reason most women's competitors peak at around 14/15 years while the men don't peak until 20ish. The men have events that require far more strength while the majority of women's events focus on the acrobats.

The strength/weight ratio of girls changes dramatically with puberty, since the main effect of puberty on girls is to add fat. Prepubertal girls tend to be more compact and have a lower centre of mass, both of which help in gymnastics.
Because of the effects of puberty, some countries were giving their girls hormones to delay the onset of puberty and prolong their time at their peak shape. (Of course, the high levels of training also tended to delay puberty as well.) The new age requirement is designed to ensure that every competitor is well past puberty, so all the competitors are equal in that area at least.

Not sure why the whole thing isn't tantamount to child abuse if you ask me. It's not training for something that you can improve on throughout your life (like, say, musical training). It is training for something you *peak* at before you are an adult.

If it didn't help, then I think they probably would never have found it necessary to mandate that gymnasts be at least 16.

they let 14 year olds compete in diving. so the age limit in gymnastics can't be about emotional or mental issues - it's gotta be about something physical.

Someone or other on the radio the other day was claiming younger gymnasts can't comprehend what a huge deal the Olympics are the way an 18 year old can so they're less likely to let their nerves get the better of them. I don't know anything one way or the other, but I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing's mostly an old wive's tale.

Our best gymnast (or rather the only female gymnast we have in the Olympics) is a 22 year old mother. Which may be due to the fact that our national level is hardly competitive, but appearantly she performed better than the younger gymnasts in the Netherlands.

I did gymnastics as a child (recreational, not competitive) but stopped in puberty because being tall made it harder.

I seem to have botched my link. retry.

Last night they were talking about strength to weight ratios being key, and younger women do better on that.

strength to weight ratios

i demand that President Obama take the initiative in researching teenage girl / carbon fiber hybrids! if we don't start now, we will never be able to beat the Chinese tween robot gymnasts.

The difference, it strikes me, between having a 14 year old diver and allowing 14 year old gymnasts is that the first is an aberration, whereas the second might become the norm (not that I know anything about gymnastics). Since, at the very least, having really young kids is perceived as an advantage, there is likely to be more pressure placed on the girls training to be world-class at a younger age. It would be a more systematic mental pressure than in other sports which do not share the expectation.

This is what I find so particularly worrisome about women's gymnastics. The earlier the peak age, the more pressure for kids to start young, and to fully commit to it at a young age. Even if 13-14 year old girls can make that decision, girls will have to decide much younger than that whether they want to put in the immense time and energy into becoming a world-class athlete.

both the cbc and nbc covered this
inaddition to the reasons mentioned above gymnastics training at olympic level causes severe stress on the body.
it can only handle it for so long.
so, the younger the person enters competition, the more 'life' you get out of them.

diving is differnt in that landing isn't nearly as truamatic and the life of a diver can be pretty long. other events don't have the rule, as NBC noted, because of the strength and training required. in quite a few of the swimming races there were either no or only one teenager.

and in beach volly ball keri walsh turned 30, and though she's close to retirement she could prolly keep going for a good while yet.

gymnastics is still the only sport I know of with 'farms' where people are trianed from near birth to compete for the next 14 years and then pretty much used up.

even football isn't that bad.

Also another difference between diving and gymnastics is that gymnastics requires excellence on multiple events that feature different areas of strength. Diving isn't nearly as hard on the body-and there are fewer skill sets to master. I was never a gymnast, but I was a diver so I at least know what goes into being a diver.

Last night they were talking about strength to weight ratios being key...

Why am I suddenly thinking of swallows?

Taller is better on the vault. At about 5-foot-6 when I was twelve I was the best vaulter on my team. SUCKED at everything else, LOL. Decent on floor, ok on beam, never mastered the bars. If your legs are too long, it’s hard to flip them around using your stomach muscles. On vault, though, the longer distance between springboard and vault gives you lift or momentum or something. (the distance between springboard and vault should be equal to the gymnast’s height.) I believe. It’s been a decade or two. :-)

Why am I suddenly thinking of swallows?

African or European?

...and in swimming, Dara Torres is 41 and still setting records.

But swimming is low impact, until you execute a flip-turn wrong and smack your heels on top of the wall. When that happens, all thoughts of low-impact sports kind of flee the mind while abject agony takes over.

Far from expert, but I have a son (7) who's done gymnastics for a while and will start competing later this year.

Having shorter limbs helps you spin better. Small body size is a plus, thus an advantage to younger competitors over adults. Plus the flexibility thing, of course. The mental stuff I think is more people reading into the situation--11 year olds starving themselves to compete would seem to suggest they feel some pressure, no?

On the vault, I'll just note that a year ago my son ran up and hit the jump and almost sailed right over his instructor's head rather than landing on his hands as expected. He was a couple of inches higher than most of the other kids in the show. (The instructor did react and catch him, to chuckles from the crowd.) Still, my son was one of the smallest kids there and still went higher than people who had 40 pounds on him--light weight helps in all these flying around competitions.

As noted above, the men's sport emphasizes upper body strength and you don't get these 12, 14 year old competitors being more capable than all the adults. I do think there's something wrong with a sport where being 12 gives you a real advantage over 20 year olds, if it's a grown-up competition.

Final note--my son's gymnastics teachers, all men who've competed at a serious level, including Olympic trials, are within a few inches of my height. I'm 5'3". The sport definitely favors small people, so if strength is less important (as in most women's events) then being younger and shorter will help. For my son, after years of being the smallest (but one of the fastest and bar none the best climber) in his class, this year my husband's height genes seem to be kicking in, boosting him up to average height--it'll be interesting to see how this affects his gymnastics. From what I've seen of the high school team practices, growing the really long legs and arms that mark my husband and older daughter's physiques will knock him out of serious competition.

"they let 14 year olds compete in diving. so the age limit in gymnastics can't be about emotional or mental issues - it's gotta be about something physical."

Gymnastics is much harder on the body--the floor exercise being the worst offender, but the landings from the parallel bars and vault are rough too. Diving, especially platform, is surprisingly rough on your body, but nothing like gymnastics.

Most other sports don't need a special rule on age, because young children aren't strong enough to compete. In diving, it is more of a wash. Being small helps on the somersault portions of the dive, but being tall is not a disadvantage on the twisting dives, and makes for much more impressive lines in the entry to the water. So in diving the pressure to have younger divers is not as intense. In women's gymnastics, everything pushes toward younger competitors unless you make a rule against it.

I've made this suggestion before and I'll make it again here: this ceases to become a problem if you make one simple change -- make the women compete on rings.

There would be no need for a rule limiting age if age were not an advantage. It's that simple. They let children compete in other sports because, although every once in awhile you get a phemon coming along (in swimming, usually) it is not by-and-large an advantage to be pre-pubescent. If you think this is a problem for women's gymanstics, then it is not a problem of scoring, or enforcement. Rather, it is a problem rooted in the requirements of the sport itself. And specifically the women, since you don't have a lot of controversies like this on the men's side. Does anyone even know if the men have an age limit? Even if they do, doesn't the fact that we don't know offhand tell us something?

So make the women compete in rings, and do away with the age restriction. I think you'd suddenly see a lot of 20-year-old Olympians.

They could solve the problem by having weight-divisions in gymnastics, like they do in boxing.

It would make the sport fairer, and increase the number of years athletes would be able to compete.

Interesting idea, but weight divisions only exist, I think, in martial sports like wrestling, judo, boxing and the like. (originally, judo had none and it was only over the objections of the Japanese Judo federation that weight categories were instituted in the 64 olympics)

Just to point out: the Chinese girl who looks 6 was on the vault for the team competition. So her tininess was not against her for that event.

In other news, I think you (shawn "publius" johnson) got robbed on the balance beam. No obvious errors, and got deducted the same as another gymnast who had errors than even I, a "self-appointed gymnastics expert for about one week every four years" could spot.

"They could solve the problem by having weight-divisions in gymnastics, like they do in boxing."

And while they're at it, eliminate segregation by gender, for this and all other sports.

And while they're at it, eliminate segregation by gender, for this and all other sports.

wrestling would suddenly become the most-popular sport in high-school.

I do think there's something wrong with a sport where being 12 gives you a real advantage over 20 year olds, if it's a grown-up competition.

Absolutely. If puberty is a disadvantage (and it clearly is), then something's screwed up. I like the thought of women's rings.

I've actually been thinking about which events could be desegregated...It would be nice to see more men and women competing together. For example: mixed team relays of 2 men, 2 women in racing sports, or in "all around" competitions like the team medals in gymnastics, include the men's team and women's teams together. I'm not talking about pitting men against women in sports where the competition would be blatantly unfair, but I think it would be nice to see world class athletes of both genders working together in some new, mixed events.

Having some doubles events in gymnastics might also allow some women to extend their careers until, well, they are actually women.

I was a competitive gymnast for 9 years (age 8 to age 16), and only stopped a year and a half ago because I was going to college and my school didn't have a team. I'd say there is absolutely a definite advantage in being smaller on every event.

I hadn't heard the term strength-to-weight ratio till reading this comment section, but that's a perfect way to describe this. If through conditioning you can develop the same amount of power as a taller person, you'll be able to do more twists and somersaults on vault and floor.

With uneven bars and beam, the thing to talk about is probably center of gravity. I remember when I was first starting out on the competitive team, bars was my favorite event. But in a few years, I shot up a few inches and my skills completely sucked for months. Very frustrating.

Also, just to be clear, note that bars and vaults can be adjusted, as in: you can make the bars closer, you can lower the height of the vault, you can move the springboard toward the vault. So it's not like being short would be a problem in that respect.

Of course, with enough skill, you can overcome being tall (relatively speaking). Svetlana Khorkina is a prime example. One of my friends was the tallest in the gym, and she was fantastic on beam.

Flexibility and strength don't necessarily go down with age, in my experience. But basically, for a female gymnast, hitting puberty is woe, and can take a while (or never) to get used to. Of course, if you start gymnastics early enough, you probably delay puberty, and somewhat alter its effects. Note that Alicia Sacramone is probably the one in the competition with any kind of chest.

I don't think you can compare men's and women's gymnastics; they focus on different skills, they aim for different results. Women manage strength, balance, flexibility in the hips, back, and shoulders, grace. I'd say the main focus for the men is strength; secondary requirements being flexibility in the hips for pommel horse, and in the shoulders for rings. As a gut reaction, I don't like the idea of women's rings for that reason; its main showcase is brute strength.

Somebody mentioned the scoring system early in the comments: yeah, that's a snafu. The code of points was modified in recent years (most notably adding a difficulty score to the usual execution score that comes out of a 10.0) to encourage the performance of more difficult skills while lowering the sting of execution deductions that would come with that. But so far, that's been pretty much a miserable failure.

The argument for the age limit about mental and physical health is rationalization and complete BS. If natural ability is found in a girl at a young (read: toddler) age, she's going to be fast-tracked to the elite level. Whether it takes one girl to age 10 to get there, or another girl to age 14, they're going to be doing the same skills; you can't stop them. Nastia was one year too young to compete in Athens; if she would've been a year older, she would've been chosen for the team. It's that they want to keep a semblance of fairness, so that the 10 year old gym monkeys aren't competing against 20 year olds with height and curves hindering them.

*steps off soap box*

On a concluding note, Shawn and Nastia got seriously robbed on vault.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad