Nadia Comaneci made sports history in 1976 when she became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 in Olympic competition. She was 14. Before Comaneci’s feat, women medaling in gymnastics had been older -- in their 20s or even 30s. After Comaneci, they became younger. Concerns about the effects of the sport on young competitors surfaced, prompting the Federation International of Gymnastics (FIG) to change the age limit for participation in the Olympics from 14 to 15 in 1981 and from 15 to 16 in 1997.
While gymnastics might look effortless, in practice it’s a physically intense sport. Athletes risk stress injuries to their joints and bones, and repetitive motion injuries to their muscles. The still-growing bodies of young athletes are especially vulnerable. In a study published in 2008, researchers at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital found that “gymnastics and ice hockey were associated with the highest clinical incidence of catastrophic injuries in both male and female participants."
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, young athletics also can experience emotional problems. Children must be developmentally ready to learn particular motor skills. If parents and coaches try to force these skills too early, children can become frustrated, leading them to feel like failures. In addition, overly involved parents can add psychological pressure even as they attempt to be supportive. One benefit of a minimum age requirement is to discourage adults from trying to make young athletes progress too soon.
Minimum age requirements can be a way of leveling the playing field. This applies more to female gymnasts than to male. Men’s events emphasize upper body strength, a characteristic that doesn’t fully develop in men until their late teens or early 20s. Women’s events, on the other hand, work best for athletes who are small, slender, limber and agile. Women who have gone through puberty and developed breasts, hips, stronger bones and greater stature can be at a disadvantage when opposing younger, smaller and less-developed competitors.
Not everyone agrees that age limits benefit young athletes. Bela Karolyi, who coached Nadia Comaneci and the women who won gold for the United States in the 1996 Olympics, believes there should be no age limit. He argues that a minimum age prevents some contenders from competing when they're at their best. It also cheats fans of the opportunity to see them. Karolyi believes the rule encourages cheating: using falsified documents to allow an underage athlete to compete. Whether he or the FIG is right, the discussion of minimum age has led to changes in equipment and training that improve safety, benefiting gymnasts and the sport itself.