Why Did Gymnastics Pivot Towards Older Athletes? (Part I)

Note: This is Part I of a 4-part series.
Link to Part I
Link to Part II
Link to Part III
Link to Part IV

To the widespread delight of the figure skating fandom, the sport is raising its minimum age limit in an effort to reduce its emphasis on child athletes in high level competition. The fans want it, and the goal of creating conditions where child athletes aren’t forced into high level competition at absurdly young ages is widely supported.

But despite the ISU taking this critical step in trying to raise the bar for its youngest competitors, I do feel a word of warning is needed and that the figure skating community should note the lessons learned from gymnastics in the 1990s when it too raised its age requirements.

In the 1990s both gymnastics and figure skating found themselves facing significant controversy in regards to the role child athletes were playing in each sport. Joan Ryan’s book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes was not just a critique of all the problems plaguing gymnastics, but figure skating as well. It was as if figure skating was the IOC’s “problem child” of the Winter Olympics while gymnastics was its problem child of the Summer Olympics.

From L to R: Shannon Miller, Tatiana Gutsu, and Lavinia Milosovici. The gold, silver, and bronze medal winners of the 1992 Olympic All-Around. Each of the three gymnasts was only 15 years old.

Both sports had to change, and both sports attempted exactly that. Figure Skating raised its age Limit in 1996, while gymnastics did the same in 1997. But for two sports with a similar dependency on child athletes, ushering in a very similar rule change at precisely the same time, they ended up in two completely different places after the change was made.

For figure skating, the role of child athletes has not gone away. If anything, figure skating is experiencing its own “little girl era” similar to what gymnastics was facing in the time of the 1970s when so many coaches were trying to copy the template of a 14 year old Nadia Comaneci. Figure skating’s senior level has been dominated as of late by athletes who are just barely over the minimum age requirements. Whereas at the junior level, it has been overtaken by skaters who are expected to compete for medals the moment they turn senior.

In figure skating, the age minimums only serve to move the needle ever so slightly. Changing the sport from being dominated by child athletes in their young teenage years, to athletes in their mid to late teenage years. The ages have risen, but the emphasis on athletes who hover around the junior/senior divide has remained in place.

From L to R: Jordan Chiles, Simone Biles, Grace McCallum, and Sunisa Lee. All six members of the American team at the 2021 Olympics was at least 18 years in age.

For gymnastics, things couldn’t have been anymore different. Starting in the 1990s the sport has experienced a full blown age revolution that in the three decades since, has shown no indications of waning. In women’s gymnastics the athletes of today are far older than their counterparts of previous generations. The average age, typical career length, and percentage of medals going to older gymnasts have all skyrocketed.

There is a reason figure skating and gymnastics diverged in two completely different ways on the topic of child athletes. If there is one paragraph that should be remembered by those reading this article, it is the following:

When gymnastics raised its age minimum, it did so in conjunction with a major rule overhaul that made it easier for older athletes to remain competitive. Gymnastics didn’t pivot away from child athletes by raising its age minimum, it did so by dismantling the entire structure that favored child athletes at the Olympics. The changes to gymnastics’ age minimum had only a minor effect to a much larger trend.

The data overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that raising the age minimum is not what is driving up the ages of female Olympic gymnasts. The last time FIG (which is the governing body for gymnastics) introduced higher age limits was during the 1997-2000 Olympic quad. And yet the average age of female gymnasts increased in the 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 Olympic quads without any further intervention from FIG in the form of additional increases to age eligibility rules. (The data below comes from a past article).

This trend not only applies to the average age of female gymnasts, but their longevity as well. (This data also comes from a past article).

It is not that gymnastics currently enjoys the continued presence of older, veteran gymnasts. It is that the trend in figure skating where some of its strongest athletes hover around the age minimums simply does not exist in gymnastics. At the 2021 Olympics in women’s gymnastics, only three athletes had a 2005 birth year which was the minimum age needed to compete. There were only seven gymnasts with a 2004 birth year, the equivalent of being a second-year senior.

Of the 16 Olympic medals won in the individual events at 2021 Olympics in women’s gymnastics:

0 or (0%) were won by a 1st-year senior
1 or (6%) were won by a 2nd-year senior or younger
4 or (25%) were won by a 3rd-year senior or younger
5 or (31%) were won by a 4th-year senior or younger
6 or (37%) were won by a 5th-year senior or younger

Guan Chenchen (L) and Simone Biles (R)

Gymnasts who were in at least their 6th year of eligibility accounted 62.5% of all medals won in the individual events. The 1st-year and 2nd-year seniors were almost entirely shut out.

Besides the changes to the age minimum, it was two major rule changes in the 1990s that ushered in these changing demographics. The first rule was the eradication of team compulsories, the second rule was the invention of the event specialist role.

Team Compulsories was an old format where every gymnast had to learn two routines for the same piece of equipment. The first routine (called optionals) was her personal routine that she could create based on whatever skills she liked best. The second routine was a standardized set created by FIG called “compulsories.” It was designed so that every gymnast at a major competition would perform the same identical routine and they could be judged based on how they perform while doing the exact same skills.

Ava Stewart was the second youngest gymnast at the 2021 Olympics and one of only three gymnasts with a 2005 birth year

Today gymnasts still perform two routines, but they perform the same routine twice, once in qualifying and once in the team finals competition. Gymnasts are no longer forced to learn two different routines, the net result is it frees up half their time in the training hall. This one rule change lowered the burden placed on gymnasts by 50%.

The other major rule change was the creation of an “event specialist” role. Prior to the introduction of event specialists in the mid-1990s, every gymnast had to compete on all four pieces of equipment (vault, bars, beam and floor). What the newly created “event specialist” role allowed for was dropping the requirement that a gymnast had to compete on every apparatus. Instead, a gymnast could “specialize” on three, two, or even just one event. If a gymnast had gold medal prospects on the uneven bars, she didn’t have to waste her time learning vault, beam, or floor routines.

In rapid succession, FIG had created two rule changes, the first reduced the number of routines a gymnast had to learn by 50%. The second rule had the effect of lowering the minimum number of events a gymnast had to compete on by as much as 75%. When these two rules were combined, it created a scenario where gymnasts suddenly had 87.5% less workload and could find more effective ways to spend their time in the gym.

Olga Korbut performing in the compulsories stage at the 1976 Olympics

It all comes down to simple math where the sport pivoted from a 4 x 2 = 8 format to a 1 x 1 = 1 format. Whereas before a gymnast had to learn all four events, and two routines per event, the minimum required commitment to remain in the sport was now literally “1.” If a coach wanted you on the Olympic team, you could go to the Olympics while training only one routine on just one event.

These two rules had a supersized effect when put together. And it completely upended the power balance between old and young gymnasts. Before these changes went into effect, aging veteran gymnasts had little chance at keeping pace with a younger, smaller gymnast. The burden of being forced to learn eight different routines was far easier for a young gymnast who was on fresh legs and didn’t have a lengthy injury history plus general exhaustion of a long career holding her back.

Besides the wear and tear that a long career has on a gymnast, being an older gymnast means having a body that is more prone to exhaustion as the toll of preforming eight different routines added up. An older gymnast is also more likely to get injured. Because she is not as small as the 1st-year seniors, her larger size means more force on the joints each time she swings on the bars or lands on a mat. All of these factors ensuring that when put through the grind of learning eight different routines, a smaller and younger gymnast will come out on top.

Larissa Latynina (L) with Maria Filatova (R) during compulsories at the 1976 Olympics. At the time Filatova was only 14 years old.

But in the modern era, not only has the playing field be leveled between the two age groups, in some ways it is hard for the younger gymnasts to keep pace with the older gymnasts. One prime example of how significant of an advantage an aging veteran gymnast has thanks to the “event specialist” option is the way it shields her from regression. It allows for an aging veteran who is a standout uneven bars worker to remain in the sport even when the natural decline (regression) that comes with age starts to show itself. The regression will impact her ability on vault, beam, and floor, but as long as she still has a competitive uneven bars routine, she still has a viable career path going forward.

Under these circumstances, some young gymnasts have to wait years before they can eclipse an aging veteran who has the luxury of sticking to the one or two events that suits her best. The “specialists” rule even helps middle-aged gymnasts who can save the pounding on their bodies at the midway point in their careers, which will be vital in later years as they push themselves to continue competing into their 2nd or 3rd Olympic cycle.

These two rule changes were monumental in ushering in a new era of longevity and are the main factors in why gymnasts continue to skew older even in the 25 years since FIG has raised the age minimum in gymnastics. But there were other factors as well.

Link to Part II

Catalina Ponor was the first gymnastics legend to compete exclusively as a specialist. In her Hall of Fame career she never appeared in an All-Around Finals.

One thought on “Why Did Gymnastics Pivot Towards Older Athletes? (Part I)

  1. The good thing about compulsory routines was in order to compete them a gymnast had to learn real dance skills. It was common to see even a low level gymnast execute true pirouettes, jete tourne, etc. Floor routines required true dance technique and these skills carried over to optional routines on floor and even beam. This encouraged the gymnast to develop a sense of musicality and a connection to her music. Pull up any routine by Maria Filatova on Youtube and this is in evidence both as a young gymnast doing a dancing doll routine, or a mature gymnast expressing pure joy with moves that connected like butter

    Like

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