The gymnastics blog world is all “atwitter” lately about lowering the minimum age to be allowed to compete in the major International elite gymnastics competitions, specifically the Olympics. The best summary of the variety of opinions has been compiled by Blythe Lawrence at The Examiner. Opinions and advice range widely, but the former trend for raising or maintaining the current age of 16 seems to have disappeared. The opinion trend now seems to lean to lowering the age, either moderately or return it to a much lower age.
While such rules would also change the age for the Gymnastics World Championships and World Cups, there is not the same problem for those two event formats, because they occur annually and because they do not have the visibility and status, as gymnastics does in the Olympics.
I have a different take, on at least one reason for lowering the age. The current minimum age limit discriminates against gymnasts, who are not born in the exact right years in the Olympic gymnastics cycle. Some gymnasts, simply by virtue of the year in which they were born, have a distinctly better chance to become an Olympian than others. Many participating countries have their own stories of gymnasts who have missed one Olympics because of age, and circumstances never again allowed them the opportunity to ever compete in an Olympics in gymnastics.
The age discrimination is affected by social and cultural norms and may apply only to those Western countries, where private club training produces the gymnastics Olympians, but there is visible evidence that Eastern countries wish the age limit lowered, as well, for their own cultural reasons.
Assume that a potential Olympic gymnast (perhaps the best in that country or the best in the world) is too young, perhaps only by weeks, for the 2012 Olympics, since she is only 15 (does not turn 16 in the year of the Olympics). Almost certainly, in the United States and other Western countries, this girl will have come from one of the Elite private club gymnastics programs, which cater and serve young school age gymnasts before they go off to college.
Four years later at the 2016 Olympics, this same gymnast will be 19 years old and for financial, educational, culture and social reasons will almost certainly have left the private club program system that is traditionally, and almost exclusively, the best producer of gymnastics Olympians. She will have missed her shot at the Olympics because she was born in the wrong year.
Compare her to a girl, who is 16 or 17 in the 2012 Olympic year, who because of her birth year, naturally falls into the correct age requirements of the Olympic. The girl who is 16/17 in 2012 does not have to disrupt in any way the normal course of life. She easily falls into a normal life pattern, that lets her train while she goes to school and lives at home, competes in the Olympics, and then goes off to college after high school or go to work.
The girl, who has to wait until she is 19 or 20 for her chance at the Olympics, likely has to postpone going to college until after the Olympics, in order to continue to receive the best training. She (or her parents) have to continue to pay gymnastics training expenses for an extra one or two years to finance her shot at the Olympics. Her life pattern is disrupted, her financial cost is greater, her college education is postponed and her chance for injury before the Olympics is greater (studies show that high level skills, performed for more time, result in more injuries).
There are certainly many other reasons for lowering the age, but it seems that fairness for all competitors, instead of the current “age discrimination” would really be a positive step of the sport in terms of giving more gymnasts a chance. The age needs to be lowered to age 13 or 14 to ensure gymnasts have a chance at, at least, one Olympics before they graduate from high school. Older gymnasts will still be allowed to compete, so their effect on the sport will not be limited or diminished.