The Recent Rise of Child Athletes in the Olympic Games

I was glad to hear IOC President Thomas Bach express support for raising the age limits of the Olympic Games in the aftermath of Kamila Valieva’s controversial appearance at the 2022 Olympics. While it is a step in the right direction, I find it very disingenuous to see these words coming from Bach at this point in time.

In the past few years, one of the lesser known storylines of the Olympic Games and a narrative that has gone completely overlooked is that the Olympic movement is currently experiencing a surge in child athletes. Whereas FIG has achieved remarkable success in getting the ages of both artistic gymnastics and rhythmic gymnastics to increase significantly since the 1990s, that has not been the Olympic experience elsewhere.

Entering the 21st century the Olympic Games had made significant progress in reducing the role of ultra-young competitors. In 2000 and 2004 the Olympics went two consecutive Summer Games without an athlete under the age of 13 in attendance. The last time this happened was 1920 and 1924. Even in the 1980s the future trend of removing early-teenagers from the Olympics was beginning to show itself. Both the 1980 and 1988 Olympics featured no competitor younger than 13 years old, something that hadn’t occurred since 1948.

But in less than a single 4-year Olympic cycle this decades-long trend has disappeared.

In Rio-2016 there were 26 competitors who were under the age of 16.

That number rose to 34 at the 2021-Tokyo Olympics.

In Rio-2016 there were only two competitors who were under the age of 14.

In Tokyo-2021 there were five.

But the craziest part of this story is that not only was Tokyo-2021 one of the youngest Olympics in decades, most of these ultra-young Olympians had actually qualified to the Tokyo-2021 Olympics prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Hend Zaza

Take Hend Zaza of Syria for example who competes in ping-pong (table tennis). She was the youngest athlete in Tokyo-2021 at 12 years, 204 days. But Hend Zaza earned her Olympic berth in February 2020 at the age of 11 years, 45 days. This was before Covid-19 triggered a world-wide sports shutdown and delayed the Olympic Games. If not for Covid-19, we would have witnessed an 11-year old competing in Tokyo-2020.

The same is true for skateboarders Sky Brown (Great Britain) and Rayssa Leal (Brazil). In the case of Rayssa Leal, she made her Olympic debut at the age of 13, but in 2019 Rayssa had finished on a podium in an Olympic qualifier at just 11 years old. In 2019 Sky Brown was only ten years old but had already been named to Great Britain’s national skateboarding team and had been given funding so she could attend Olympic qualifiers.

In February of 2020 the BBC called Sky Brown a “genuine medal contender” for the Tokyo Olympics and this was (once again) occurring before the Covid-19 Pandemic triggered a 1-year delay. And there is yet another skateboarder to mention as Kokona Hiraki was a child prodigy that was both a few months younger than even Sky Brown, and also ranked higher than her in the 2019 standings. The hype for both Sky and Hiraki would prove to be legitimate. Kokona Hiraki won silver and Sky won bronze at the 2021 Olympics. Meanwhile Misugu Okamoto was another Japanese skateboarder who was “older” being just 12 years of age in 2019 when she was listed as an Olympic qualifier by the media.

Rayssa Leal

The 364-day postponement of the 2020 Olympics to 2021 prevented the Tokyo Games from completely dominating the record book of youngest Olympians in modern Olympic history. In just skateboarding alone the following youngsters produced these results in 2021.

Gold: Momiji Nishiya (13 years, 330 days)
Silver: Rayssa Leal (13 years 203 days)
Silver: Kokona Hiraki (12 years 343 days)
Bronze: Sky Brown (13 years 28 days)
Bronze: Funa Nakayama (16 years, 39 days)
4th Place: Misugu Okamoto (15 years, 43 days)

But if not for Covid-19 and the 364-day delay of the Tokyo Games, the age data would have looked like this had the Olympics been held in 2020 as originally intended:

Gold: Momiji Nishiya (12 years, 330 days)
Silver: Rayssa Leal (12 years 203 days)
Silver: Kokona Hiraki (11 years 343 days)
Bronze: Sky Brown (12 years 28 days)
Bronze: Funa Nakayama (15 years, 39 days)
4th Place: Misugu Okamoto (14 years, 43 days)

Sky Brown in a photo shoot after being named Great Britain’s most likely qualifier in skateboarding for the 2020 Olympic Games

With that context in mind, the plummeting ages in figure skating led by Eteri Tutberidze and Russia where super young athletes are taking the main focus isn’t that much of an outlier. It is part of a larger theme where the Olympic movement as a whole seems to have forgotten the reason various sports started pivoting away from child athletes.

Child Olympians are impossible to root against, they are a ratings bonanza, and there is a special feeling when watching a young person enjoy their first major success. But there are also well established reasons why most Olympic sports felt pressured to raise the average age of their competitive fields. Namely, child Olympians are highly vulnerable to abusive training conditions and are put in high-pressure situations that no child should be subjected to.

Both figure skating and gymnastics came under intense scrutiny in the 1990s as stories of an abuse culture within their respective sports due to the prevalence of child athletes began to pile up. Action was needed as a form of public relations damage control and both sports responded by increasing the age limit of their respective sports. Whereas gymnastics used the increase in age requirements to spark a wave of Olympic quads where its average age has only trended upwards with each passing year, figure skating has not achieved the same level of success.

Kamila Valieva

And in the last decade figure skating has only seemed to go backwards as athletes who are close, if not exactly at the age minimum have been top medal contenders in the most recent era of the sport.

But Thomas Bach didn’t care about what was occurring in women’s figure skating and the obvious direction the sport was taking as the emphasis on young athletes was growing with each passing year.

He didn’t muster the power of the IOC to raise concerns with the ISU and Russia that this trend wouldn’t lead to anywhere good. He responded with indifference, if not outright ignored the rising trend that should have instantly raised alarm bells. Bach behaved in the exact same way with the introduction of skateboarding.

Sky Brown

It is one of the most baffling moments in Olympic history that a brand new sport was introduced to the Olympics in Tokyo-2021 and was allowed to repeat the exact same mistakes of previous Olympic sports. That at no point was it explained to skateboarding officials that sooner or later, high stakes Olympic competitions dominated by child athletes will eventually turn into a cycle of child abuse.

Not even in 2020 when Sky Brown experienced a horrific fall at 11 years old was there any considerable discussion that the IOC had a growing problem on its hands. Among her injuries, Sky suffered broken bones in her arm, multiple skull fractures and was brought to the hospital in an unresponsive state. The media later quoted her father as saying “she was lucky to be alive.”

It occurred while Thomas Bach expressed nothing but indifference toward these trends. Either he was too incompetent to see the red flags of what was occurring within Sambo-70 and skateboarding, or he was too timid to led the IOC into a fight against those institutions. Perhaps, Thomas Bach simply saw the ratings potential of these young athletes who are insanely popular with the media and let that blind him to the legitimate concerns.

Rayssa Leal (L) with skateboarding legend Tony Hawk (R) at the 2021 Olympics

I don’t mean to imply that skateboarding was highly controversial in the 2021 Olympics due to the role of child athletes. Skateboarding’s Olympic debut was a resounding success and it occurred without a major incident where a child athlete appeared to be put under too much pressure or was known to have endured abuse.

But give it time.

When gymnastics made its pivot to child athletes in the 1968-1976 Olympic quads, nearly all of the press coverage was initially positive. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the media began to seriously question what “little girl” gymnastics truly entailed and how the conditions the athletes competed under raised concerns. Eteri Tutberidze first achieved high-profile success for herself at the 2014 Olympics. But it wasn’t until this current month at the 2022 Olympics that the world sporting community realized the tactics within Russian figure skating were out of control.

Alexandra Trusova

Kamila Valieva tested positive for a banned substance despite being only 15 years old. Valieva then had a high-profile meltdown where the gold medal favorite fell from 1st to 4th place in her final performance of the Beijing Olympics. The already distressing performance was made worse when as Valieva left the ice, rather than console the child who was already struggling with her emotions, Tutberidze had only critical words regarding her performance.

At virtually the exact same time, another of Tutberidze’s child athletes Alexandra Trusova was also seen in a highly distressed state. Trusova was shouting and bawling. The reaction was nothing like your typical athlete being upset at “only” a silver medal. The reaction only seemed possible if a child athlete had been pushed too hard, too far, and for too long.

Even Anna Shcherbakova the actual gold medalist didn’t appear to have her needs being addressed either. In response to the chaos around her, she was seen all alone, sitting on the couch, clutching a stuffed animal in her arm, and was looking almost downtrodden as her eyes wandered towards the floor. Without knowing the results, anyone watching the footage would have assumed this athlete had just finished 4th, not won the most prestigious gold medal in the entire Olympics.

Anna Shcherbakova

Seeing Kamila and Alexandra in tears while Anna sat alone was such a symbolic representation that the current culture of the sport dictated that two girls needed to be broken for every one girl who becomes an Olympic gold medalist. And in the end, did that Olympic gold medalist even achieve happiness herself?

Entering the 2022-Beijing Olympics it was thought that the trio of young Russian skaters would be a ratings bonanza. Being so cute, adorable, and athletically gifted that they would win over international audiences with ease. Their status as training partners and de facto childhood friends only empowering the narrative that this was a heartwarming storyline as they never let friendship get in the way of an Olympic rivalry.

That is the narrative the IOC hoped to sell and felt the 3-way rivalry of Shcherbakova, Trusova, and Valieva could be seen as a positive “feel good” story that would expand on the ratings success it achieved in 2018 with Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova. But as was the case in any sport that is overly invested in child athletes, sooner or later the faults of the system will expose itself. For Eteri Tutberidze and her supporters, the 2022 Olympics was when that moment finally happened.

Evgenia Medvedeva (L) and Alina Zagitova (R)

Even before Beijing-2022 Eteri Tutberidze was a highly controversial figure within the figure skating community as fans were increasingly questioning the methods that led to her success. The IOC calculated that the legitimate concerns and resulting negative press attention would be drowned out as millions tuned in to watch Sambo-70 perform in Beijing. But what the IOC got instead was a highly controversial women’s singles where the topic of mistreatment of child athletes took center stage.

Which is why I find it disingenuous that only now is Thomas Bach raising his voice in support of the IOC increasing its effort to raise the minimum age standards of the Olympic Games. Only when the role of child athletes have become more of a liability than an asset has this issue finally captured his attention.

Sky Brown

2 thoughts on “The Recent Rise of Child Athletes in the Olympic Games

  1. Great article, but Skye Brown’s horrific injury wasn’t really a training accident linked to olympic training. She wanted to jump a gap between two huge ramps which isn’t a feature in competitive skateboarding disciplines, just something people at that skate facility did for ‘fun’. So I don’t think that changing the minimum age to compete at the olympics would have prevented this. I do support the raising of the olympics minimum age to be 16 or even 18, but because of the circumstances of it, her injury doesn’t serve as evidence for this.

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