Olympic Gymnastics: Who Cares How Old These Girls Are?

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Olympic Gymnastics: Who Cares How Old These Girls Are?

You can’t really have an Olympiad without at least a little controversy. A judging snafu here, a doping scandal there. To a degree, it is expected.

But who expected Olympic controversy to appear in the form of a group of hyper-flexible, prepubescent Chinese girls?

China’s women’s gymnastics team is under scrutiny for possible violations of the minimum-age requirement of 16.  Even in the current absence of hard evidence, it seems obvious that several members of the team are not even close to the minimum. Admittedly, gymnasts are small in stature and therefore youthful in appearance, but come on; a couple of those girls appear to be 12 years old. Or younger.

Of course, no one would care about this if these girls weren’t competitive. But the Chinese girls won the team gold (with the girls in question playing key roles in the victory). And America’s newest darling, Nastia Liukin, was narrowly defeated for gold on the uneven bars by He Kexin, a girl who is believed to be 13 years old. Medals have come into play – more specifically, Americans have been denied gold – so a few hackles have been raised about the age minimum.

On its face at least, the concern seems legitimate. The rules are in place for a reason, and those who violate the rules should be sanctioned in some way.

But here’s my question:  Why is there a minimum age in the first place?

Yes, I’ve heard the official rationale. The minimum is meant to protect the younger athletes from the extreme physical stress a gymnast sustains during a critical stage in the body's growth. Sanjay Gupta appeared on CNN, looking very somber while talking of possible growth-plate damage that can occur if an athlete is subjected to the pounding of gymnastics before the age of 16.

I certainly do not profess to be smarter than the estimable Dr. Gupta. But that explanation doesn’t address a critical point. In a sport where a 20-year-old is considered long in the tooth, high-level competitive gymnasts generally begin their training before the age of 10. By the age of 13 -- much less 16 -- their growth plates have already been pounded for years. So realistically speaking,  who is protected by this age minimum?  

Additionally, is there an advantage to be had by being 12 years old as opposed to being, say, 16? If there is, it doesn't seem to be quantifiable, despite the fact that the youngest Chinese girls appear to excel on the uneven bars.

An athlete's career -- particularly that of a gymnast -- is woefully short. What if He Kexin had waited for the London Games, then suffered some catastrophic injury between now and 2012? Do you think she would have felt "protected" by the age minimum? Whose interest would have been served then?

It is also worth mentioning that these girls live in China, a country that isn't exactly known for allowing its citizens freedom of choice. They may very well have been under orders to compete -- now.

At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I don't believe the Chinese girls should be punished if they are found guilty of age violations. Some sort of sanction may be in order, but they shouldn't be forced to turn in their medals. Think about it: If you were presented with the chance to represent your country on the grandest of athletic stages, wouldn't you jump at the chance? Or would you wait until you were old enough?

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