Myth vs Reality: Is Simone Biles Breaking an Age Barrier?

Shawn Johnson recently provided commentary for Yahoo Sports where she alluded to Simone Biles being at a disadvantage because of her age. It sparked some negative backlash on the Gymternet and Shawn has been criticized for making false statements. But Shawn’s commentary is closer to the truth than people realize.

Shawn didn’t make these comments in regards to the entire international field, she made them while directing comparing Simone to Konnor McClain. She was comparing and contrasting the advantages each gymnast had. She cited Simone as having experience and expertise. She gave Konnor the “edge” on age in a physical context and used the word “energy” as an example.

Note: I wrote a separate article objecting to the “Konnor vs Simone” storyline.

Shawn Johnson did make a blatantly incorrect comment by stating no one had competed over the age of 24. But it should be noted that this was a 59 second video interview intended to be a quick sound bite. Shawn had to say as much as she could, as fast as she could, and didn’t have the luxury of getting into every technical detail.

So I’m going to give Shawn the benefit of the doubt that she was only making these comments in regards to Simone maintaining her status as the top All-Around (AA) medal contender. I’m not trying to say what Shawn said was correct, only that if you make slight alterations and “clarifications” to her comments, the data supports the general concept of what she was at least trying to say. I’m also going to emphasize that Shawn didn’t say age was a problem for Biles, only that Simone is entering uncharted territory.

This is something that is important to emphasize because Simone routinely wanders into uncharted territory. The number of medals she has won, the length of time she has maintained her status as the top gymnast in the world, and now her advanced age are all examples of Simone breaking barriers that would be too much for any other gymnast to overcome.

So let’s look at past ages of Olympic AA Champions.

What needs to be remembered is that four years ago Simone Biles was already pushing the envelope when it came to age in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). She was one of the oldest gymnasts to win an AA title in modern WAG history. If you choose to remove Simona Amanar from the data because her win came at the result of a stripped medal, at the 2016 Olympics Simone Biles was the first gymnast in 28 years (1988) to win the AA while over the age of 18. Excluding Amanar would also make Simone the oldest gymnast in 44 years (1972) to win the AA title.

So how much further will she push the envelope in 2021?

If Simone Biles wins the 2021 AA, she will do so at the age of 24. She will be older than the average age (23 years old) of the six AA winners that predated Nadia Comaneci. When Ludmilla Turischeva is dropped and only the first five Olympic Champions are counted, the average age (24) merely matches Simone’s age. We are talking about the classical era of WAG. An era that is often treated as incomparable to modern gymnastics and remembered for predating the wave of young gymnasts that would later takeover the sport.

And yet Larissa Latynina was 21 and 25 years old when she won her two AA titles. Vera Caslavska was 22 and 26 years old when she did the same. Biles did it at 19 years old and will likely do it again when she turns 24. Simone’s age is a throwback to a completely bygone era. But how does this all relate to the gymnasts of today?

While it is true that gymnasts have become older in recent Olympic quads, Simone Biles is still defying age trends. I took the 59 gymnasts who competed on all four apparatuses during qualifications at the 2016 Olympics and looked at their ages. The reason I excluded the remaining gymnasts is because I didn’t have AA scores for them.

Only 11 of them (18.6%) were 23 years or older. Not only did gymnasts over the age of 22 represent a very small size of the competitive field, the older they were the worse their scores were. Below is a graphic comparing qualification rankings of gymnasts among various age groups. As older and older gymnasts are incorporated into the data, the average rankings of the whole age group continued to fall.

I worked with this same data in Data Crunch #6.1 and one thing I pointed out is that there is a possibility that there may be a sampling bias in the data. Gymnasts competing for countries with weak programs tend to skew older. As a result I may be comparing mid-tier veteran gymnasts to top tier younger gymnasts, while top tier veteran gymnasts are excluded from the date entirely.

To rectify this situation I excluded all gymnasts who competed for a country that didn’t send a full team to Rio-2016. This reduced my field from 59 gymnasts to only 30 gymnasts. And the results were the same. Just three gymnasts (10%) were over the age of 22. They also skewed lower in qualification rankings. Below are the three gymnasts and where they ranked among the 30 gymnasts.

Lieke Wevers: 15th out of 30 gymnasts
Jade Barbosa: 21st out of 30 gymnasts
Vanessa Ferrari: 27th out of 30 gymnasts

Conclusion

There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to the upper age limit of gymnastics. This is because it is not a simple topic. Gymnastics fans are quick to mistake a hard cutoff with a soft cutoff. Historically gymnastics had a hard cutoff from the period of Nadia Comaneci in 1976 to the 1992 Olympics when age trends started evolving. In the 1976-1992 period there was a hard cutoff. If a top gymnast in the 1976-1992 period managed to “survive” the timeframe in which gymnasts of her birth year start retiring en masse, that bought her at most, only a few more years. Or she survived it for longer, but was only a shell of her former self.

Today if a gymnast gets through the period in which gymnasts of her birth year start retiring en masse, there is no telling where she goes next. As was the case with Oksana Chusovitina, it could be another 15 years. The evolution of age trends is not as simple as a mere change in averages. Making burnout after one year of senior competition less common is a completely different trend than accomplishing longevity beyond a full Olympic quad. This results in a situation where progress has been made in getting gymnasts past the age of 17, but significantly less progress has been made in getting gymnasts past their early 20s. Gymnasts competing in Event Finals (EF) have made huge gains, but the gains are not as significant in the AA.

These examples all demonstrate how rules promoting older ages actually work and the disproportional impact they have had. Two rule changes that were critical to increasing the average age was the implementation of specialists and the the elimination of compulsories. Older gymnasts can compete on less events and need less routines making it easier to keep up with their younger counterparts who excel at competing on a wide range of events. Those rules had a massive impact on EF, but not so much for the AA where gymnasts still need to compete on all four events.

Catalina Ponor

Oksana Chusovitina, Jessica Lopez, and Catalina Ponor are examples of gymnasts breaking the traditional age barriers, but distract from the larger trend that an overwhelming majority gymnasts don’t get past their early 20s. But these are not the gymnasts Simone should be compared to. The gymnasts Simone should be compared to are Aly Raisman, Aliya Mustafina and Shang Chunsong. They are the three gymnasts who finished behind Biles in the AA. It was the last time they were in top form at a major competition and they where all between the ages of 20 and 22 years old.

Of the 24 gymnasts in the 2016 Olympic AA, 13 of them (54%) were in their 20s and 30s. But only four of them (16.7%) were over the age of 22.

As misguided as many assumed Shawn’s commentary was, she wasn’t that far off base. Had the comment been clarified to mean “being a top AA contender,” there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with the comment. Neither this article nor Shawn Johnson ever stated that age was going to “catch” Simone in 2021 and predict a possible loss. Only that it would be another example of Simone being in uncharted territory. That uncharted territory being that in modern WAG history we have not seen a gymnast carry such dominance past her 23rd birthday.

Final Thoughts

(1) I wish I could look at the full data for the World Championships. The inclusion of World Championships data could very well contradict the Olympic data. But the only data I had available was the Olympics. While I very much would like to incorporate the World Championships data the next time I write on this subject, I do think using only Olympic data is entirely justifiable. Gymnasts will skip the World Championships and possibly skew the data, but no gymnast would voluntarily skip the Olympics. Olympic data is by far the most important data to use.

(2) I can only analyze these results based on what we know in 2020. The ages have been rising since the 1980s. As things stand now the age that appears to be the biggest barrier is 23 years old. But Simone and other gymnasts such as Ellie Black, Asuka Teramoto, MyKayla Skinner, and Roxana Popa could very well be on the leading edge of a new era where gymnasts en masse make it past their early 20s. But it won’t be until we see the rest of their careers pan out and have the hindsight of results from future Olympic quads to know if the typical cutoff age has shifted.

(3) The “cutoff” is very clearly a soft one. If a gymnast can survive the cutoff, she can do anything, including going on to compete for another decade. Simone Biles has gotten past the cutoff point for her birth year. If she goes on to have another strong quad and make it to 2024, that would not surprise me one bit.

(4) It must be stressed that Svetlana Khorkina broke this trend back in 2003 and nearly did it again in 2004. It is a testament to the raw athletic talent of both Khorkina and Biles that they put up strong AA results at an advanced age. But I don’t think Khorkina is comparable to Simone. The last three years of Khorkina’s career featured a rather extreme decline in the number of medals she won in EF. Whereas Simone has only gotten better in the final years of her career.

If you apply what I have said on the basis of “Simone may be the first 24 year old in modern history to win a major AA title,” Khorkina breaks that trend. But if you apply what I have said on the basis of “in modern history Simone might be the first great AAer to enter her 24th year and not show any signs of decline,” then Khorkina does not break the trend. It was the latter that I am basing this article on.

(5) Regardless of whether Simone and/or Khorkina breaks the trend, the fact that only two modern gymnasts are applicable to this trend and they are the two with the most medals at the World Championships is a testament to just how difficult it is.

Correction: In an earlier version I incorrectly listed Amanar’s age at the 1996 Olympics in place of her age at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

3 thoughts on “Myth vs Reality: Is Simone Biles Breaking an Age Barrier?

    1. Thanks so much. I fixed the graphic and resulting info with a correction at the bottom. I pulled Amanar’s age at her first Olympics in 1996. I’m kicking myself for making such a mistake.

      Like

  1. Hey,
    Great Article. I really liked it. (Always there for a little statistical analysis)

    But I was very confused that you didn’t include Eli Seitz along Wevers, Barbosa and Ferrari at your 2016 Olympics comparison as she also turned 23 in 2016, so technically she was over 22 when she competed in Rio (and placed 11. in qualification/ 17. in the final).

    Like

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