China’s gymnastics team has been using at least one girl under the Olympics’ allowed age of 16, according to a finding made by The Associated Press on Thursday.
The report has created an international controversy. Some coaches believe younger gymnasts have an advantage over older ones, because they have greater flexibility and a higher strength-to-weight ratio.
“When they’re younger — before they even hit 13 — they hit their peak, especially top-level gymnasts,” said Gary Stam, a coach for Gymkhana Gymnastics Schools, which has three schools in the Pittsburgh area.
The Associated Press discovered a report on China’s government-run Xinhua Web site that labeled gymnast He Kexin as one of “10 big new stars,” reporting that she turned 13 on Nov. 3, 2007.
The AP saved a copy of the Web page, which is now inaccessible. Questions have been raised about the ages of He’s teammates, although Chinese officials maintain that all are at least 16.
A May 23 story in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper of the country, reported He was 14. A correction ran the following day, changing her age to 16.
If He’s age is actually below the Olympic minimum, her youth could have helped boost China to its first team gold medal in women’s gymnastics.
Elaine Jewart, owner of Jewart’s Gymnastics in the North Hills, said the bodily changes that come with the onset of puberty affect a gymnast’s center of gravity and strength-to-weight ratio, putting strain on the body.
“By choosing a child who hasn’t gone through that, you’re eliminating the stress factor,” Jewart said.
Younger gymnasts’ bodies are less susceptible to overuse injuries because they haven’t been training as long as older gymnasts, according to Penn State women’s gymnastics coach Steve Shephard.
“It’s the old adage: The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” Shephard said. “Little kids bounce when they fall and get up laughing. The bigger kids don’t get up so quick.”
In addition to the physiological advantages, younger gymnasts have a psychological edge.
“An athlete at that age has not had as many serious injuries as older ones,” said Jason Butts, an assistant women’s gymnastics coach at West Virginia University. “They’re not as subject to fear from injuries or the knowledge of what they’re actually doing.”
Said Pitt women’s gymnastics coach Debbie Yohman: “They go into that Olympic arena, and I’m not sure they realize how big that is.”
But for all of the advantages prepubescent gymnasts present, the coaches acknowledged large drawbacks to them competing at such a high level.
Stam said that while the athlete’s smaller frame is an advantage in events such as the bars and balance beam, older gymnasts have more strength for the vault and are more graceful in the floor event.
A younger child may be emotionally devastated by an Olympic-level failure, Butts said. Generally, older performers handle defeats better because they have more experience with them.
And though their cartilage is more flexible than older girls’, younger gymnasts may still be in danger physically.
Dr. Jeanne Dopbrak, a UPMC sports medicine physician, said young athletes are more prone to injuries, which can stunt growth and delay puberty.
“Their immature skeleton just isn’t ready to handle the day-to-day stresses that will occur,” Dopbrak said. “If you have a storm coming, would you rather be in a house under construction or in your finished home?”