Teeny, Tiny Gymnasts

There has been endless speculation during the Beijing Olympics as to whether the Chinese gymnasts are old enough to compete under Olympic rules, which require participants to turn 16 in the year that they compete.

Blog reader Chris Bourdon decided to stop talking about it and actually do some interesting data analysis.

Here is the e-mail message that Chris sent me:

I thought it would be interesting, in the wake of the controversy over the ages of the female Chinese gymnasts, to see if the numbers would say anything about their ages. So, putting “looks” and official government age documentation aside, how do the sizes of the Chinese gymnasts in question compare to the general Chinese population? And how do Olympic gymnasts compare to their countrymen in other countries?

Attached, find charts for the Chinese and U.S. 2008 women’s gymnastics teams. The charts show [statistics for] each gymnast’s height, weight, and officially reported age [along with] overlaying growth data from each respective country. The Chinese growth charts are from 1965 and can be found here.

Fwcc.org has links to more recent charts but [they] lack underlying data points, which makes graphing inaccurate. Suffice to say that Chinese women have gotten bigger across each percentile over the last 40-plus years.

The U.S. charts are from 2000 and can be found at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site.

The statistics for each gymnast come from the official Chinese Olympic web site.


A few notable observations:

• All the U.S. gymnasts are at the 3 percent mark or above in each category, except Shawn Johnson, who is significantly below the 3 percent mark in height and slightly below in weight.

• Four of the six Chinese gymnasts are below the 3 percent mark in height, and three of the six are below the weight [of the average Chinese person] in 1965.

• The smallest Chinese gymnast is the same height and weight as an average 11 1/2-year-old Chinese girl was in 1965.

The charts Chris made do an excellent job of reinforcing what commentators are saying: these Chinese gymnasts are incredibly tiny.

All this discussion and analysis raises the question of why there should be any minimum age requirement at the Olympics in the first place.

I suspect one justification for banning 13-year-old gymnasts is that perhaps they are thought to have an unfair advantage because they are smaller and more flexible.

I can’t really believe that is true, however. I challenge you to name any activity other than gymnastics (excluding obvious things that depend purely on being small in stature) in which someone who practices regularly between the age of 13 and the age of 16 wouldn’t be a whole lot better by the age of 16 than they were three years earlier.


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  1. RobertSeattle says:

    Why is there a age limit? Or why is it 16 and not 15 or 14?

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  2. Robin says:

    Perhaps the rule isn’t about performance as much as exploitation. The former Soviet Union used to be very serious about its athletes winning medals, and their hockey team for example was composed essentially of professional players in the Red Army. Could the rule be in place to protect younger people from this sort of behavior? Granted children could still be raised as professional athletes, but perhaps the age limit is thought to lessen their toil.

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  3. Chris says:

    I think the larger justification for a 16 year old age requirement is the mental and physical stress it puts on a 10,11,12,13 year old to train and perform at this high of a level.

    Additionally, several of the “experts” mention the younger aged tend to be more fearless in terms of trying new moves and during performance.

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  4. Craig says:

    I thought the advantage of a 13 year old would be the lack of developed breasts, which would adversely affect a gymnast’s ability to tumble.

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  5. dd says:

    I imagine the difference comes from the incredible damage these girls do to their bodies as they train. It may very well be that Chinese gymnasts are too worn out after the age of 18 or so to perform well.

    I’ve been much more uncomfortable with this factor after someone pointed out that in any situation except sports, the damage done to these girls in the name of training would be considered child abuse. Not quite apples to apples, but worth considering, especially in light of the questionable ages of some of the gymnasts.

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  6. miriam says:

    it’s physics. Being taller is an inevitable consequence of age until shortly after puberty, which may be delayed in intensively training althetes. Being taller also gives you more rotational intertia. And god forbid if you actually hit puberty– your hips get all heavy (and you might get even taller!). The strength to mass/ rotational intertia will be better as a 13 yo than a 16 yo.

    Another interesting question might be: how many of the female gymnasts are female? Males would have the advantage of hitting puberty later and keeping nice, slim hips…

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  7. B.Dewhirst says:

    Bit of a fuzzy line between work and leisure here… hence there may be something equivalent to a child labor concern.

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  8. Jack T. says:

    The problem with these growth charts from 1965 is that about 5 years earlier China was experiencing massive famine and other problems from the “Great Leap Forward” Projects of the late 1950s. When this chart was taken, many of the girls and the population as a whole in south china were suffering from mal-nutrition. So the data source covers an unusual time period.

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