Why are gymnasts so young? How Team USA and the Tokyo Olympics is challenging the status quo

Joshua Rogers July 29, 2021
Why are gymnasts so young? How Team USA and the Tokyo Olympics is challenging the status quo
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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During the Tokyo Olympics, the issue of why gymnasts are so young – and so short – came to the surface. Both questions bear complicated answers, with the likes of Team USA challenging these previously held notions.

Why are gymnasts so short?

The reason why gymnasts are short is largely down to physics.

In one detailed explanation, a former athlete points to the effects of angular momentum.

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Essentially, it takes significantly more force or torque to rotate an object if it is two feet compared to if it was one foot.

Gymnasts, like everyone else, are much shorter when they are younger, meaning they are able to typically generate more torque than bigger athletes.

Furthermore, there’s the issue of gravity. In simple terms, the heavier you are, the bigger the force of gravity is exerted upon you.

Being lighter means the less force is required to get you twisting and turning throughout the air. Generally speaking, the shorter you are, the lighter you are, which explains why gymnasts tend to have a smaller frame.

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Why are gymnasts so young?

If being light and short makes one a naturally good fit for a gymnast, it makes sense that most gymnasts are traditionally young.

(Children tend to be short and light, after all.)

Furthermore, children tend to be more supple than adults, more flexible, and their muscles are more easily developed.

This all helps in becoming an elite gymnast.

Nellie Kim, a five-time Olympic gold medalist for the former Soviet Union, supports this theory too.

She also added that younger and lighter gymnasts allows them to be fearless, which in turns allows them to perform more difficult manoeuvres. 

Then, of course, there’s the amount of time it takes to become a gymnast.

Typically, aspiring female gymnasts can start as early as 4-years-old.

By the age of 7, they can be partaking in advance training and competition. Typically, they put in hours upon hours of training time on top of either going to school or being homeschooled.

Generally, adults don’t have this amount of time to dedicate themselves to something. Usually something else will get in the way, be it a job, family, or other responsibilities.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On the other hand, men tend to start gymnastics at a much later age than females.

Most men don’t physically mature until well into their late teens and early twenties.

Much of men’s gymnastics involves a certain kind of upper-body strength (take the rings, for example), so it makes sense they tend to compete when their bodies are more fully formed and developed.

The rising age of gymnasts on display at Tokyo Olympics

Having said that, things are starting to change in terms of gymnasts’ ages.

In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, stories were being written about the increasing age of female gymnasts.

A New York Times article points out that the sport can be done exceptionally well by gymnasts who are in their late teens or even their 20s.

For instance, the average age for a female gymnast in the Tokyo Olympics is just under 22 years, a remarkable rise compared to previous years.

Take a look at the age of Team USA women’s gymnasts: Simone Biles (24), Grace McCullum (18), Sunisa Lee (18), Jordan Chiles (20), MayKayla Skinner (24), and Jade Carey (21).

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Thankfully, gymnastics is increasingly being seen as not just a little girl’s sport.

This is hugely important given the dangers in promoting an aesthetic in which only children can be successful.

Furthermore, Team USA has proven that with age comes mental strength.

Although more research needs to be done in extending the window for competitive athletes, we’re already beginning to see a move away from the previous obsession with youth.

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Joshua is a senior sports writer with over four years' experience in online writing. He graduated with a BA in Ancient History from The University of Manchester before receiving an MA in Sports Journalism from The University of Central Lancashire. He became a trending writer for a leading social publisher and later spent time covering the 2018 World Cup for The Mirror Online. He then moved to a social marketing agency where he acted as website editor. His specialties on The Focus include F1, tennis, NBA, NFL and combat sports.