In 1972 Russian Olga Korbut won the gold medal and the hearts of the world with her full rotation back flip on the balance beam. She was 17 years old, she wore pony tails, and she was the youngest, cutest competitor in a sport where the average competitor was usually in her low-to-mid twenties. With her spectacular performance, she ushered in the age of the "pixie" gymnasts: young, prepubescent girls who are able to use their tiny frames to perform flips and feats that their elders would never have dared. By the 1996 Olympics, though, even Olga Korbut would have been older than most in a sport where the average age of the competitors was about 15. Olga's famous backflip wouldn't have impressed the judges either. Now, women gymnasts perform three backflips in a row without blinking.
Bela Karolyi, the charismatic coach of the Romanian team and the 1996 US "Magnificent Seven", has been credited with increasing the level of performance while decreasing the average age of the performer. In 1976 the world was stunned with the flawless performance of 14-year-old Romanian Nadia Comaneci, who he had coached. He defected to the U.S. shortly after, and took his gymnastics philosophy with him. The standard was younger, shorter, and skinnier. The results spoke for themselves: in 1984, 16-year-old Mary Lou Retton won the gold medal under his tutelage. His team of tiny, perky and fearless 15-17 year olds won the U.S. a gold in 1996. The most endearing image was of the tiny, squeaky-voiced Kerri Strug performing a near-perfect vault with a sprained ankle to secure the gold for the U.S. team.
But these tiny, prepubescent girls were paying a price for this chance of a lifetime. Kerri Strug's career came to a halt after a long struggle with anorexia. In 1991 15-year-old Olympic hopeful Julissa Gomez died after breaking her neck after a misstep on her vault. A fellow gymnast, 15-year-old Christy Henrich, developed anorexia as she struggled to qualify for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. She retired at 18, without a medal, and died last year at 22 weighing less than 50 pounds. In a sport where the careers are painfully short, many of these young gymnasts are subjected to the combined pressures of ambitious coaches and parents, and the ideal of the tiny wonder that was Nadia Comaneci. Unlike their male counterparts, who have to grow into their roles; "women" gymnasts are encouraged to stop growing.
In 1996, the Olympic committee tried to reverse this trend by creating a sixteen-year-old age minimum. This year, the seven-member U.S. team is significantly older than the last one. Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes were in their twenties; the youngest, Elise Ray, is 17. Some of them have more curvaceaous physiques and breasts. Karolyi has objected stenuously to the age limit, calling it "crazy discrimination." What about the ones who are smaller and better? he has asked. Shouldn't the Olympics just let the best one win?
On One Hand...
Age minimums need to be put in place if womens gymnastics is going to remain a viable Olympic Sport. The fourteen and fifteen year old gymnasts are being exploited. Parents find it easier to control kids at that age. Coaches find them easier to control. And audiences have come to enjoy the sight of pixie-like waifs performing unbelievable feats. Gymnastics is dangerous, physically demanding, and mentally grueling. Children shouldn't be forced through the gauntlet of training before they are able to prepare themselves mentally for the difficulties of six-to-eight hour days in the gym. Nor should they be encouraged to stunt their growth for the greater glory of the stage-hogging coaches such as Karolyi, who prides himself in his ability to manipulate these "little suckers" (as he has been quoted as calling them.) If anything, the age minimum should be increased to 18.
On the Other Hand...
Gymnastics should be open to any athlete who qualifies, no matter how old or young she is. The average age of the athletes has declined, because women in their twenties are less capable of doing the vaults and flips that 15-16 year olds can do. This became clear at the Olympic trials: a number of the stars of 1996, including Dawes and Miller, were clearly unable to perform on their previous level. Karolyi's last minute attempt to salvage the team failed, and the United States walked away without a medal in the team events. If Nadia Comaneci had not qualified for this Olympics because of her age, would she have qualified for the next? The younger gymnasts are usually the best, and they are the least susceptible to injury.
*unless they are given false passports, as in China (N. Dikigoros)
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