One of the most popular sports in the Summer Olympic Games is women's gymnastics, with a huge part of the appeal for many being that the top athletes are usually very, very young — women must be at least 16 years old to compete, but those just a little bit older often don't receive the the same amount of accolades and attention.
It makes sense; even if our culture didn't fetishize youth, prodigies will always be more impressive than older extraordinary people. Who doesn't enjoy watching sprite-like creatures perform seemingly impossible and inconceivably precise acrobatic feats on beams and bars? Plus, as UCLA gymnastics head coach Valorie Kondos-Field told The Atlantic's Dvora Meyers, "It's human nature to be attracted to [something] younger." But gymnastics stars haven't always been little girls.
According to Meyers, the rise of the little-girl gymnast began forty years ago at the Munich Olympics, when 17-year-old Olga Korbut performed the first handless backflip on a beam, among other impressive moves. Oh, and she was tiny and wearing yarn-tied pigtails. She won three gold medals, but "her impact on the sport has little to do with her results at that competition," Meyers writes:
Korbut's debut marked the beginning of the end for the older balletic women who had dominated women's gymnastics during the early years and paved the way for young, energetic women like herself. Larisa Latynina of the USSR, who remains the most decorated female Olympian ever, was in her 20s when she competed at her first Olympics and even won several medals while four months pregnant; her chief rival, the Hungarian Agnes Keleti was in her early 30s at the time of her Olympic debut. But they were winning medals with some very elementary skills. "They were doing what are considered primitive gymnastics today," said Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast magazine. "There are kids who are 5 years old who are doing those skills already."
Korbut's Munich performances changed all that. Not only did her daring raise the difficulty and athleticism threshold, but her youthful exuberance help make Korbut one of her sport's first globally famous figures.
Four years after Korbut's debut, she was already old news: the pint-sized star of the 1976 Montreal Olympics was Romania's 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci, who earned the sport's first perfect tens. While Comaneci was landing double twisting dismounts, Korbut was tired from touring over the past four years — and affected by puberty. "My body changed. I started to develop things. This is another point. This is why I was so tired," she said.
And that's pretty much how it went for teenage gymnasts for the next few decades:
They start training young to learn the gravity-defying skills that make gymnastics the marquee sport of the Summer Games and compete at the elite level for just a few years before yielding to the next group of tricksters. The petite athletes peak in their early-to-mid teens, and every Olympic cycle introduces mainstream audiences to a new crop of young talents who can perform an even more difficult array of skills.
Recently, however, more female gymnasts are competing into their late 20s thanks to some significant changes to competition rules. (Funnily enough, the International Gymnastics Federation's 1997 decision to raise the age minimum from 15 to 16 didn't do much beyond superficially assuaging the concerns of the public, but other mandates have.) Before the late '90s, all gymnasts had to compete on all 4 apparatuses: vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor. But now, a team can put their best three athletes on one apparatus and all scores count towards the total, meaning that older gymnasts can relax a bit and drop their weakest events. Also, the level of difficulty in routines plateaued over the past decade, so older athletes don't have to stress about keeping up with new moves that only prepubescent teenagers can handle.
This summer, we'll watch gymnasts like 37-year-old Oksana Chusovitina, who won the silver medal for Germany on the vault in 2008, and 27-year-old Elizabeth Tweddle, who is expected to win big on the uneven bars for Great Britain, compete with younger girls for medals. But will women's gymnastics continue to be so popular if actual, full-bodied adults are flipping and flying through the air?
The Rise (and Fall?) of the Little-Girl Gymnast [The Atlantic]
Image via Shmel Shutterstock.