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.

Thomas B.

It'd be interesting to see how these distributions change for all countries with more authoritarian governments. If abnormally small 16 year olds do exist, the Chinese government is more likely to force them to train in gymnastics than the U.S. government.

Communist countries simply get more extremes from their population into the competitive ring. Data supporting this conclusion can be found in "A Tale of Two Seasons: Participation and Medal Counts at the Summer and Winter Olympic Games", published in 2004 in the Social Science Quarterly by Professor Daniel Johnson of Colorado College.

Keith M

There has been a stupid amount of hype around this 'controversy'. Has anyone considered the very real possibility that Chinese people are just naturally, genetically, shorter and thinner and more flexible than other races? African/Caribbean (and African-Americans) are tall and athletic and just biologically built to run faster. People from Eastern Europe and Scandinavian countries somehow always sweep the shotput, javelin, and discus events, because biologically they are constructed with strong shoulders and bulky frames with which they wrestle bears in the Old Country.

My point is, different races of people, that throughout the history of man lived different lifestyles, have different body constructions. I have a friend from Hong Kong who still gets ID'ed to go in the bar even though he is 30 who looks like he is 15.

Why can't Americans just accept that China might be better than them at something, for once? Nobody is pointing fingers at Michael Phelps for being a cheater (except the Serbian swimmer he beat by a 100th of a second who insists it was rigged).


Peter Halferding

Most 16 year old boys tend to be unfit for a male boys choir in which they excelled at 13 years.

The point here is the physical alteration in the human body as a result of coming on age. For male gymnastics, the high points for acts that depend on physical strengths causes a shift to older performers with extensive developed musculature.

So the obvious thing should be to introduce a regime for higher points that require physical strength and a more developed musculature.

Marc Robinson

Two activities whose performance can deteriorate between 13 and 16 even with practice share a common characteristic: they are hurt by secondary sexual characteristics that develop in puberty: women's swimming/diving and boy's soprano singing (think Vienna Boy's Choir). Women's gymnastics is similar; girls normally add mass in awkward areas for gymnastics and extra height hurts. Even male gymnasts have abnormal body types, though the strength required by men's gymnastics means that male gymnasts peak older.


I'd like to see the same analysis on the Chinese basketball team in terms of how out-of-norm their heights are compared with others from their country; 7'6" Yao Ming is probably equally abnormal.

This wouldn't be completely apples-to-apples, as gymnasts tend to be selected from a narrower age range than basketball players and so there will be fewer gymnasts to select from.


in response to Kevin #70

While I mostly don't care, in 2006 at a major event, one of the gymnasts in question was born in 1994... all of a sudden, she was born in 1992?

China isn't all that good about covering their tracks, and the information has been located. Its virtually impossible to prove China did in fact cheat (I doubt the website is going to be sufficient evidence) but it really flies in the spirit of the games. Marion Jones cheated, she cost not only herself her medals, but also those medals of her teammates. China should suffer at least the same punishment if these allegations are indeed true.

That said, if all of China's medals were taken away, they'd probably start a war of some sort against the IOC.

denis bider

If you permit 13-year-old gymnasts, they're going to start training them at age 0.

Seriously... most sports are inherently a race towards the ridiculous. Professional sports should probably be discouraged and frowned upon, more so than supported. The more competition is allowed to develop, the more it becomes a freak show; the more outrageous sacrifices people have to make to win.

Sports authorities try to slow down these developments by banning doping etc, but that merely serves as a hurdle. The basic problem is the nature of the competition in the first place, and as long as that persists, incentives are there to turn sports into ever greater freakery.

Voice of Reason

If there ever was any doubt, it has all been put to rest.


China purposely cheated, and every medal earned (individual or team effort) by our little 14 year old cheater should be stripped. Further, it should be looked into who it was on the IOC (International Olympic Committee) that gave the okay for China's athletes. This person (maybe persons) allowed China to keep cheating. The only real way to make up for this would to have the responsible parties publicly humiliated on an international scale (a press conference that has them admitting to cheating should suffice) and then sacked.

China has made a big deal about this being their coming out party just to turn around and blatantly cheat their way to the top. Who knows how many other events they have broken the rules on we won't catch. In my mind, this only proves China is willing to do anything to put on the appearance they have changed...even if it means lying, cheating, detaining innocent citizens, submitting other sovereign states to their military might (Tibet) and doing anything else possible to make sure nobody catches or questions them.

For shame China.



I think Witty Nickname had it sort of right:

Too young, and it becomes impossible to ignore the voice in your head telling you to stop looking at her that way: viewers tune out.

Too old, and they can't perform so miraculously: viewers tune out. (Anomalies like the 33-yo German medalist aside.)

Bad for ratings. Bad for the Olympic money machine.

Hence, the age limit.

The girls look just right, and it's a hugely popular event in major television markets worldwide.


Isn't the fact that the Chinese weight and height stats from 1965 and the US stats from 2000 make this analysis irrelevant? 35 years is a couple of generations.


frankly, i don't care what the official olympic age limits. even if the US players are all over 16, and the chinese under, they are *all* children, and the situation is just twisted.

i find it shameful that parents and governments do such things to otherwise normal children (and of course, this applies to a lot of sports...)


I believe, the two arguements (reasons) for the age limits that seem to make the most sense are that first off, someone who is the age of 11 to 14 is not mentally ready to handle the kind of pressure that would be placed upon them in Olympic competition and they are not physically prepared enough because they lack in training time. Obviously I am no Olympian but just think about it; this is the same reason why seniors make varsity teams much more often in America than juniors, sophomores or freshman. They just have not been able to train enough yet to aquire the physical and mental readiness needed for such competitions.

Secondly, it makes sense that the age limit is in place to protect them from being over worked as children. I would be shocked to find out that as you get closer to the Olympics, the amount of training that you go through would not increase. Therefore, while I am sure that the younger girls around the ages of 11 to 14 do go through rigorous hours of training that seem almost ridiculous to the average person, I am also sure that once they get to the age of 15 to 16 and are in contention to become an Olympian, they begin to train much, much more than they were at a younger age. It would seem then, that the age restrictions would be a good way of seeing that the younger athletes are not put through that kind of intense training at too young of an age.



I support the view that the 1965 data is biased down the 2000 data. The fact that it was collected in Hong Kong and not China however puts the bias up, because when I was there, I noticed that the average person there was like 3 inches shorter than the average person in Beijing.


To everyone who is mentioning the age limit to prevent mental or physical strain during competition. You forget the Olympics are not the only competition. Its been mentioned several times that the athletes in these games have won medals at the World Championships in 2007 or other similar meets. I imagine the age limit is not as strict in some of those. Surely the Chinese girls have competed before 2008 correct? So even if they are 16 now they would have been in competition as 15 or 14yr olds. Most of the Chinese gymnasts have been doing this since age 3 and have seen plenty of competition I'm sure.


I don't find Bourdon's analysis all that relevant to the debate. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt have been described as physiologic aberrations but talk about their advantages aren't preceded by the word "unfair".

I can't buy the argument about the rigors of training either. Athletes at the Olympic level in any sport, at any age, punish their bodies. That's why we admire them.

The other arguments don't make a whole lot of sense to me so I feel like all that's left is the "perv" factor.

One other thought I'm going to throw out there is that this is really an argument about state-sponsored sports program versus what we have in the US. I'm guessing that a state-sponsored system can more efficiently find the physiologic aberrations.


Anyone who has seen gymnastics knows the enormous difference that size makes. But that still doesn't justify a minimum age.

Alan Light

It really does not matter if being younger gives you an advantage or not.

It's a rule.

If you break the rule, that's cheating.

If you cheat, you are disqualified.

End of story.


Why should we expect anything about these extraordinary athletes to be normal?


Another reason for the age limit is the whispers of drugs / hormones that previously surrounded the sport.

True or not, younger, smaller girls were perceived as having an advantage and there were (are?) many whispers of "older" girls taking forms of hormone therapy to delay the onset of puberty to compete more effectively.

Instituing a competitive age minimum at a point where girls are almost certain to have begun maturing limits the competitor pool to only those who have undergone at least some portion of puberty, and should in theory reduce the pressure to (assumedly dangerously) tamper with body chemistry to keep up with too-tiny girls.


It is not relevent why the age limits are as they are. What is relevent is that the age limits were set as rules. It seems that these rules could have been broken.

I think that if it comes out that China did cheat, they should have to relinquish all their medals not just the ones involved in this contraversy. That would definitly cause a country to think twice about cheating.

It is one thing if it was the competetor that cheated, but this would be the country.

Maybe if the Olympics were held by random draw instead of the highest bidder, this would not be an issue.

The IOC turned there head because of MONEY. There is no doubt that if a hacker hadn't taken the time to find the documents, the IOC would not have thought twice. Now the IOC and everyone else can no longer ignore the 500lb 14 year old elephant in the room.