What If You Were the Best Gymnast in the World but Weren’t Allowed to Compete?
The average person already thinks gymnastics is pretty amazing. They’ll turn on the TV to watch people flip around and do exciting tricks just because it’s cool, and they wish they could do it too. However, what if the gymnasts you watch on TV and in the Olympics aren’t the best ones out there? What if there were better gymnasts sitting at home, doing the same thing as you, not able to compete because they’re too young? What if you never got to see Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps make history because they weren’t old enough to compete? The world would be missing out on some great athletes, and their sports would definitely not be the same.
The age limit rule in gymnastics officially states that a gymnast must turn 16 in the year of the international competition to be eligible to compete. Some of today’s greatest gymnasts happen to be 13, 14, and 15 years old. They are just as good if not better than the older girls competing in the world today. However, they won’t get their turn until at least four years from now when the next Olympic games roll around. By that time, they may not be in the same peak physical condition that they were four years before.
Take Katelyn Ohashi, for example. Ohashi won the Junior National Title in 2011 with a total score of 60.000, which would have placed second among the seniors. If you take her score and compare it to the results of the World Championships held in Tokyo, Japan in October 2011, Ohashi would have won the gold medal. It’s astounding to think that someone so good at what they do, who is ineligible to compete at the Olympics by just four months and twelve days, is going to be sitting at home on her couch watching as her teammates represent USA in London next year. By the time the Rio Olympics roll around in 2016, Ohashi could be retired, she could be injured, or she could just not be as good as she used to be. A lot can happen in four years.
Nastia Liukin, a name recognized by even non-gymnasts, is the reigning Olympic All-Around Champion. This means she’s pretty much the Queen of Gymnastics until the London Olympics occur next August. Liukin won the all-around title when she was 18, which is great, but she wasn’t at peak form. Liukin had to deal with nagging injuries throughout most of 2006 and 2007. She was not the gymnast she used to be when she won two national titles in a row as a junior in 2003 and 2004. If she had been born just ten months and 30 days earlier, she would have not only won the gold at the US Olympic Trials in 2004 but earned herself an automatic berth to the Olympic Games in Athens later that year. By the time four more years passed and it was time for another Olympics, Liukin was limping through meets, and some people even thought that she shouldn’t even be on the Olympics team heading to Beijing. So far we have seen the age limit almost result in two phenomenal gymnasts not reaching their ultimate goal in gymnastics, to make the Olympic team and represent their country.
The age limit is not only a problem in the United States but in other countries. Gymnasts in Russia, Romania, China, and Italy, as well as many other countries, have been left behind because they were too young to compete at the highest level. Bruno Grandi, the FIG President argues that there are valid reasons why the age limit is in place. Grandi says, “Sports like gymnastics should not be there for kids. Gymnasts should only be allowed to compete on the international stage when they are mature physically and mentally.” He ultimately calls the shots. Working to be the best often puts so much stress on the body that injuries occur and could cause problems later on in life. However, if the FIG insists on not allowing gymnasts under the age of 16 to compete internationally, then how are younger gymnasts ever going to be ready mentally for the stress of a big competition.
Kayla Ross of the United States doesn’t face the same problem that others like Ohashi face. She is eligible to compete at the London Olympics because she will be turning 16 by the end of 2012. However, since Ross was not old enough to compete in international competitions prior to 2012, how was she supposed to become mentally mature enough to handle a huge competition like the Olympics. Although Ross is already one of the best gymnasts in the world (she would have placed first at Worlds if she had be eligible), she has never been to a major competition like Worlds. How can the US trust her not to fall apart in a high-pressure situation when they have nothing to base it on?
Some writers in the gymnastics world have come up with solutions to the problem. Brigid McCarthy of The Couch Gymnast recently wrote an article on the idea of a Junior World Championships in conjunction with the Senior World Championships that occur every fall. This would give junior gymnasts the chance to get more experience in the international field as well as get their name out there and let the fans know who they are. McCarthy brings up a good point in her article when she says, “It would give juniors worldwide a chance to get experience in major competitions. Late bloomers would still have a longer time to grow into their gymnastics, while those who do not have long careers would still get a chance to show what they can do while they can still do it. And for those who struggle with injury or burnout, deciding to end a career while still in one’s teens might not be so tough if they have at least had the opportunity to compete at a Worlds competition.”
I believe that if the age limit must stay in place, then there must be another way for junior gymnasts to get the valuable experience needed to be an asset on an Olympic team. They have to be able to get their name out there, and I feel like a Junior World Championships or major international junior competition would be a good alternative. However, for now, all Ohashi and others like her can do are try and stay healthy and continue working for another 4 years to accomplish their biggest goal: Making the Olympic Team.
Check out the video I made called “If there was an age limit back then…” It shows well-known, excellent gymnasts from the 1970s-1990s who all would have been too young to compete internationally if the age limit were in place when they competed.
Check out the Storify story I made using pictures of junior gymnasts either ineligible for the London Olympics or only eligible starting next year. Read a brief description about them and decide for yourself whether the age limit should be there or not.