Olympic Gymnastics 2012: Why Are Men's Careers Longer Than Women's?

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Olympic Gymnastics 2012: Why Are Men's Careers Longer Than Women's?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Chellsie Memmel and Alicia Sacramone

In the world of athletics, longevity is determined by individual sport. Where an equestrian may compete well into and beyond middle age, gymnasts tend to burn brightly and then like a white dwarf star, collapse. That said, men do tend to remain in the sport longer than women.

The question is, why?

Elite gymnasts generally begin their training at a very young age. Not only does this facilitate fearlessness as the tricks become more difficult and even dangerous, it also contributes to injuries as students progress.

Every sprained ankle or growth plate fracture at an early age weakens the body and can develop into a major problem by the time they reach the elite level. This goes for both males and females.

In a 16-year study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy (CIRP) from 2008, 426,000 children between the ages of six and 17 dismounted into an emergency room with gymnastic-related issues. Many of these injuries were physical stress related due to the repetition required to learn/control a skill.

Head and neck and injuries plagued the boys more than the girls, who incurred more upper extremity problems. Stress fractures due to extreme pressure on wrists and ankles, etc. can lead to trouble as the child’s skills develop.

While injuries can affect either sex and end careers in the blink of an eye, put this aside and the fact remains that generally speaking, injury-free women seem to lose their edge earlier than men.

As reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer during a 1998 interview with Mary Lee Tracy, the answer is because girls’ physical development is different from boys. As boys transition into manhood, they develop more muscle mass, a benefit in a sport that requires strength and power, whereas girls experience more detrimental physical changes during puberty.

Their hips and torsos change with the oncoming of womanhood, which alters the physics of twisting and flipping more so than for men of similar age. Therefore the sport is easier for girls over women who often, in a sense, need to re-learn skills they have already mastered simply because their bodies have changed.

Add to this the differing demands for women vs. men.

Flexibility is a key component of women’s gymnastics. Recall Olga Korbut as she bent herself in half backward on the balance beam at the 1976 Olympics. This isn’t a natural position for humans. We’ve only been standing upright for a few thousand years. All combined, those skills that defy the norm take a toll on a body, young or old. 

Not that there are no fabulous 20-something females on the circuit, particularly those competing at the collegiate level. There is also a case to be made for Oksana Chusovitina of Germany, 37. She is on the roster to compete at this summer’s Olympics. But send Chusovitina out head to head against a 16-year old in the all-around and it’s a good bet the youngster will come away victorious.  

Frenchman Lucien Demanet won an Olympic team bronze medal in 1920 at the age of 45. Today, the oldest male Olympic gymnast is Iordan Iovchev of Bulgaria at 39. This will be his sixth Olympiad and while he is not on the will-probably-medal list, his ability to continue to perform at a high level is admirable.

As males develop muscles and body mass that enhance their gymnastics performances it is a natural assumption this leads to a longer life in the field, barring serious injury. Men continue to compete after getting married, even after starting families. Women—not so much.

With the extinction of balance beam dip steps, stag handstands and front walkovers at the Olympic level, the sport now dictates to a new age pool, sadly with many talented women leaving sooner than they would prefer. Save changing the Code of Points, it’s likely to remain this way.

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