A History of the Average Age in Women's Gymnastics

Data Crunch #6.1

There are a lot of misconceptions about how and when the ages of women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) fell. So I have compiled some data on the topic which is listed below.

There are a few things I want to clear up. This data only includes the Olympics, and it only includes gymnasts who participated in the All-Around (AA) at either the qualifying stage or finals. This criteria actually skews the 2012 and 2016 data. In previous Olympics every gymnast on every team participated in AA qualifications. In recent Olympic quads not every member of a particular team (United States for example) has the ability to participate in AA qualifications.

Nations that send full teams such as the United States tend to skew younger. Nations that don’t send a team and only send individuals such as Uzbekistan and Venezuela are often responsible for some of the oldest gymnasts in the field. The reason being these countries have fewer Olympic-caliber gymnasts in their program. This makes their Olympic team spots less competitive allowing an aging veteran gymnast like Oksana Chusovitina greater leeway to prolong her career.

In the last two quads smaller gymnastics programs are overrepresented in the AA compared to the large ones, relative to your typically Olympic AA in a pre-2012 quad. I plan to update this article with a Part II where I add in the rest of the gymnasts to fix this problem. But for now I only went with the data I have.

There are other “influences” in the data. I’d link the high ages of the 1952 Olympics as a byproduct of World War II. Gymnasts were forced to prolong their career if they wanted to achieve their Olympic dream as the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled. The 1980 and 1984 Olympics have some of the lowest ages in WAG history. Both Olympics were boycotted resulting in a significantly lower amount of gymnasts in attendance. A single team comprising entirely of abnormally young WAGs would have a greater impact on the data in a boycotted Olympics. With fewer teams competing, the outlier teams have a greater impact on the data.

I also made a second graphic which is the exact same data. The only difference is I put the Y-axis at age zero which may make it easier to visualize with less dramatic gradient changes. The key takeaway from the data stresses two things that I believe are important to note, and are things I’ve emphasized in previous articles.

1. The bulk of the decline in ages actually occurred prior to the arrival of Nadia Comaneci in 1976.
2. A true discussion on the decline in ages must include the 1950s.

The 1952 USSR Championships witnessed the arrival of a 20 year old Genrieta Konovalova and an 18 year old Larissa Latynina. Both gymnasts placed in the bottom of the top-10, but had signaled the start of a trend. The following year in 1953, the two gymnasts took gold and silver at the 1953 USSR Championships.

For me personally, I consider the dual success of Konovalova and Latynina to be the first key event in the trend of declining ages. Their success signaled a shift in the balance of power. Konovalova and Latynina were winning at an age where other Soviet WAGs typically started their respective careers. And soon after other gymnasts of the same profile (Polina Astakhova) would also find success.

By the late 1950s, the first innovative coaches had made the pivot to recruiting and training girls under the age of ten. Today that trend is the norm, but it isn’t often realized just how early in WAG history it had actually been adopted. In the early to mid 1960s the first generation of gymnasts who had been trained in this fashion came of age. Almost immediately, they started having success. The same month Latynina celebrated her 30th birthday she famously lost to a 15 year old by the name of Larissa Petrik in 1964.

Note: the 1964 USSR Championships were held after the 1964 Olympics

Even before Petrik’s win there were indications elsewhere that nations were coming around to the idea of younger gymnasts. Of the four highest performing teams at the 1964 Olympics, three of them had a gymnast who was the youngest ever to have been named to an Olympic team for that nation, up to that point in time. After Petrik’s win everyone doubled down on the idea. The 1968 Olympics witnessed the average age of a gymnast fall by 2.168 years, by far the steepest decline. For comparison, no other Olympic quad witnessed a decline that went beyond 1.370 years.

Nadia Comaneci’s success at the age of 14 at the 1976 Olympics certainly caused the ages to decline even more. But by then the bulk of the decline had already occurred. At the 1972 Olympics eight different teams had a 14 year old in their lineup. 48% of the field was under the age of 18. Three in every four gymnasts were under the age of 20.

Nadia wasn’t so much the spark that started a decline in ages, but the nuclear bomb that finished it. I would go as far to say that with 14 year olds already becoming normalized at the 1972 Olympics, a 10 year old Nadia could have made the Romanian team if not for age limits. If not, she was at least capable of making a senior level AA final in 1973 when she was only 11 years old. And Nadia has the results to back that claim up.

Who knows where things would have gone if age limits hadn’t been introduced. Raising the age limit to 15 years old starting in 1981 clearly had some impact. But it’s also difficult to measure the true impact as the 1980 and 1984 boycotts may also have had some influence on the data.

But perhaps the most interesting takeaway is that the age has almost always trended one way or the other. From 1956 to 1980, the ages had dropped at every Olympics with one exception. From 1984-present the ages have risen with one exception. And finally, I have created one last graphic where the Y-axis is stretched to its maximum setting in order to obtain the best perspective of how the ages changed at each successive Olympics.

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