Sydney, 2000: the summer games of controversy. Too often the Olympics is stained with doping and scandals which contradict everything the Olympics stand for: honesty and integrity. And in Sydney, it just about had everything; from tampering with the height of the vaults, to performance enhancing drugs, and of course, the forging of birth certificates.
China won bronze in the gymnastics, courtesy of Dong Fangxiao’s performance; only for the medal be stripped of the Chinese after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) discovered the team had illegally fielded the underage athlete. The Chinese federation entered her as a 16-year-old, and the authorities later found out that she competed as a 14-year-old; two years under the required age limit.
The Chinese lost their medal, and it was awarded to the fourth placed finishers, the USA.
“I’m really just proud to know that justice prevailed. My teammates are very well-deserving of the bronze medal, and I’m sure each and every one of us will be thrilled. We will cherish it.”
Dominique Dawes, a member of the US team
However, as correct as the IOC were in stripping the Chinese team of their medal, does there need to be an age limit in gymnastics? In a sport with such a narrow window for competition, why not allow youngsters under the age of 16 compete at international level?
Bela Karolyi, coach to nine Olympic champions, has advocated that there should not be such an age limit in the sport:
“The age limit is unfair. It is nonsense. Whoever has the maturity and talent to compete at this level should be here.”
Karolyi coached Nadia Comaneci, the female gymnast who changed the sport. She competed in the 1976 Olympics as a 14-year-old and made history by scoring a perfect 10 in an Olympic competition, it was a moment of history in the sport, and the moment which set standards and judges marks moving forward; this would have never have happened with the age limit being in place in 1976.
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Such a case in point proves how at such a young age, these girls – and men – can be competitive, some are even at their peak. In a sport which requires a wide ranging of factors, some of the gymnasts can lose the vital attributes needed to be at the top of their game by the time they’re 18:
“The window in this sport is very small, and a 16-year-old age minimum closes the window for much of that time. Many gymnasts choose to leave the sport at 16 or 17, as the toll it takes on their bodies wears on them.”
As well as the fine window, and trying to maximise the sport as a spectacle, the minimum age requirement encourages illegal activity. It encourages the cheating, falsifying documents to allow your best athletes to compete. It happened again in the Beijing 2008 Olympics with the scandal around Jiang Yuyuan, Yang Yilin and He Kexin.
Of course, the pushing of the athletes at such a young age is concerning, and could have a negative impact both physically and mentally. But, how much difference is there between a 14-year-old, and a 16-year-old? Karolyi believes the rule is cheating the fans, and robbing the best athletes of their finest hours.
To get around the debate, he suggested the Olympics create two divisions; one for juniors and seniors. The age debate remains a contested issue, but Olympic fans will always want to see the best compete, and sometimes, they might just be under the age of 16.