By Ann Tatko-Peterson
Wednesday, October 1st, 2008 at 2:04 pm in Sports.
Forget that they look as if they’re 10 years old. Ignore all those “misleading and erroneous” records posted online that listed the ages of some Chinese gymnasts as 14 years old. Pretend its possible for an athlete to state one year that she’s 13 and the next that she’s suddenly 16 — she just misspoke that first time around.
The international gymnastics federation says everything is peachy regarding the ages of the Chinese gymnasts who competed and won gold at the Beijing Olympics in August. Federation officials have checked passports and other documents, verifying the gymnasts were all the legal age of 16. (Of course, the Chinese government produced said documents — and yes, I’m alleging that the government was a party to duplicity.) Case closed on the 2008 team, but hey, at least the federation is still investigating the suspect ages of two Chinese gymnasts from the 2000 Olympics. Due diligence, right?
As a former Olympics beat writer, I’ve had a lot of people ask why age-gate matters. Who cares if the gymnasts are 14 or 16? The international age limit is a “ridiculous” policy in the first place, they say. Except, it’s not. That rule is the only thing keeping the highly exploitive sport of gymnastics in check.
Younger gymnasts do have an advantage. They are more flexible and better able to manipulate their bodies for hard skills. They also are less likely to have sustained the major falls and injuries that can make them more afraid and cautious on an apparatus. But gymnasts also aren’t professional athletes who are old enough to make their own decisions. They are minors, thrust into the highly competitive world of gymnastics at a young age. In China, the average start age is 4 years old. Some girls take their first tumble in an official gym at age 2 — before they’ve even developed the verbal skills to fully explain why they are tired or hurting. And in China, being a national team athlete often means leaving your family — your parents — to train at top-notch facilities. Imagine parting with your child when they’re just a toddler.
Furthermore, gymnastics is a sport prone to injuries and eating disorders. I met a U.S. gymnast once who had separated her shoulder three times, had pins in her ankle, busted her knee twice and needed a nightly dose of ibuprofen just so she could sleep without pain. She was only 9. Remember the much hyped Kerri Strug performance at the 1996 Olympics, where Strug took her final vault on a broken ankle? It looked great for the cameras, she became an American darling. And years later, she couldn’t finish a marathon because her ankle is destroyed beyond repair.
Because of the high-rate of injury in gymnastics, Olympic-caliber athletes usually compete on the world’s biggest stage only once. If they’re really lucky, they may get two cracks. As a result, most gymnasts have a shelf life of six to eight years. The purpose of the Olympic age limit is to deter national programs from rigorously training gymnasts too young — when their bodies are still developing and their bones and joints are still vulnerable. If you need proof that competitive gymnastics can eat its athletes from the inside out, check out Joan Ryan’s book, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.” It’s a real eye-opener.
In the meantime, let’s hope the international gymnastics federation has learned a lesson from this Beijing Olympics debacle. Passports and official papers aside, doubt remains. An official investigation brings about only so much closure. This can and will happen again. It will continue to cast a shadow over the sport until the federation comes up with a more diligent system — like perhaps making every gymnast register with the federation the moment she enters the sport, even if she has no grand competitive aspirations. It’s not the perfect solution, but at least that would be a start.