Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I am having a thought.  It hurts...

 And we know what thinking means in these parts, don't we?  Here, on TCG, where we have been doing a little math lately, we often find that Big Thoughts + Couch Gymnast = what?  That's right, kiddies, a giant rave!

So todays rave is about the age thing.  I was thinking about Grundi's  oft-criticised idea of raising the age limit of gymnasts to participate in the majors to 18 years old. 

Even though it will never happen, and what I think about the idea doesn't really matter, there is, to me,  that one thing it would actually achieve.  This would be to raise the public profile of the sport.


I think gymnastics would be a lot more popular to a general audience if gymnasts were older.  Sure, the tricks wouldn't be as hard, and we close fans who know just how spectacular it could be with the young 'uns competing get would be bored, but I have seen some of my non-fan friends go crazy over seeing a basic beam routine or a double back somi on floor.  This is because to them, it all looks pretty freaking spectacular.  We tend to forget, at least I do,  just how hard it is just doing a really dynamic leap on the beam, let alone a standing arabian. People are impressed by the simple stuff, because it's not simple.

I think most people who don't know the sport think gymnasts are going to be older than they are.  A case in point.  Just before I was heading off to the Pac Rims to watch podium training on day one, I ran into my friend Colin at our local cafe.  Colin, who knows I love gymnastics, says to me excitedly, "Guess where I am going?"  It turns out he has been hired (he is a director) to work for ther NBC to help in making their Pac Rim footage.  After we talked a little bit about how he'd been briefed (including the execs telling them who was going to win) he asked me, being a typically dirty-minded thirty-something guy, "So, will there be any hotties?"
I of course, somewhat witheringly said, "Colin, they are children."  He just kind of laughed like he didn't believe me.

Later that day, I happened to be standing near him when they called the gymnasts to march out for training.  And what do you know, I saw him witness these gymnasts, most of whom truly are children- some of the juniors almost fetal- march out into the arena and his face kind of dropped.  Later, when I ran into him, he told me how embarassed he had been when he actually saw them.  He had no idea that they's be that young.  I think he was expecting the early twenties cheerleader type, more your NCAA kinds of girls.
But anyway, I don't plan on arguing that we should have older gymnasts because sex sells sport. That'd make me a bad, bad feminist.  It really does sell it, though.  Look at Maria Sharapova.  She doesn't even have to play great tennis any more to remain a global celebrity, she just has to prove she can still put those legs with a skirt, preferably one made by a major designer, to stay famous.

(Mohini- a fascinating journey)

What I really think is that older gymnasts are more interesting.  They have real life experience that inspire and affect their gymnastics. They have opinions and thoughts about the sport.  Of all the gymnasts, who did the Australian media pick out to focus on during their coverage of Beijing, other than the Aussie girls?  Oksana Chusovitina.  Of course they did.  Here is a woman with a story.

Look at some of the most intriguing personalities of the sport in the last few decades, Khorkina of course, Sacramone got better with age, Bhardwaj, Produnova, Chusovitina.  All the mature gymnasts (okay, Tweddle doesn't give us much, but she still gives a decent quote).  These girls were old enough to have actual stories to tell about their lives.  Bhardwaj can tell you about pulling a Capriati, then finding her way from delinquent back to the gym again through college gymnastics.  Chusovitina can tell you about returning to the sport essentially to save her son.  Khorky will tell you her opinion on just about anything and prance down a runway too if you ask her.  Khorky was the consummate gymnast celebrity.  Sure, Nastia and Shawn are getting a workout in the States, the hotbed of celebrity culture, but that is because they won gold.  Khorky endured long after the medals ran out.

Marta Pihan-Kulesza can tell you what it is like to have a spouse in the same sport, travelling the world together.  The older Svetlana Boginskaya can tell you what it is like to see an entire country change in front of your eyes and not know how to leave her beloved sport. Annia Hatch can tell you what it is like to uproot yourself fro your tiny nation, marry and fight your way to compete for a leading nation.

(Khorky- the only true gymnast celebrity outside America)

What can little sprites, as adorable and as talented as they are, like Raluca Haidu, Anastasia Grishina and Kyla Ross tell you about their world?  That after training they have to go to bed because they have homeschool tomorrow?  Or that they like Friends reruns on cable?  That last September they got to have ice cream?

The crossover of sports people into the world of celebrity, where we have come to know far more about sports people than just their athletic achievements  means that the public has come to desire knowledge about athletes.  They want background stories, to feel a close, imagined relationship with their heroes.  The celebritsation of sport makes sport into not just a competition, but a form of entertainment, a cultural entitiy with a significance way beyond the Rudis and double layouts.  Knowing the pesonality and the personal aims and desires that motivate the athlete has become an imperative means for the media, who, lets face it, make or break the popularity of a sport, give sport meaning to spectators. 

(Chuso- a reason to contine)

Some might argue, as I argued with myself, that it was the kiddy sprite that sold gymnastics to the world.  This of course, is partly true.  But also, it was the fact that live television showed Olga Korbut which sold that kiddie sprite in Munich, and again, in a battle of the cuties against Nadia Comaneci in Montreal.  The television made gymnastics what it is every four years, at least.

Besides, remember how frustrated journalists were interviewing Nadia, a little girl who had nothing to say but mention her doll collection?  She had nothing else.  The gym, her team, her coach and her dolls.

  The media played as much a part of getting those elfs out into the world as they did.  And how the media, and the role of the sportsperson has changed since then!  The sportsperson is now an entertainment commodity, something to be bought and sold to its audience.  To do so, these athletes have to participate in selling themselves by offering more than just their sport to the world.  It is unfortunate most of the time, but it is how it is. Young gymnasts just don't have that much to give beyond fans of their own age. I do think this plays a part in gymnastics not having a wider general appeal.

(Nadia-one of the first media celebrities)

Also, of course, because it is one of the few sports where participation, spectatorship and coverage is dominated by the women's side of the sport.

As I said, I don't think the age limit raise will ever happen and I am not sure I want it to.  But if it did, I have a feeling gymnastics would be a lot more accessible and appealing to viewers.  It wouldn't matter so much if they couldn't understand the confusing rules or the spurious scoring system if they were able to sympathise with the people competing.  Just a thought.



  1. Damn! I haven't thought about the age limit issue under this light before. It is something to consider. You're something woman. Keep up the good work!

  2. Oh my word, I couldn't have put it better myself, well said!!! I am torn with the age thing, I really am. I would mourn the loss of tiny, tearaway youngsters who dazzle with their ability to fly. But there's a small part of me that wishes gymnastics would return to the pre-Nadia days - the days when women competed, not children, for all the reasons you mentioned, albeit with some updated tricks. Then I feel terribly guilty for having such thoughts!! It's a catch 22 really. *sigh*

  3. I agree with the whole bit about casual spectators maybe being more inclined to watch older athletes....sadly, I know many males who rave about watching gym on TV (say during the Olympics), love all the leg and little leos being shown and then freak out when they find out how old the majority of the girls are, hahaha.

  4. THANK YOU. I've been saying this for a long time. GYMNASTICS NEEDS WOMEN, not children. I think the sport would attract more fans if women were competing on the podium rather than little girls. Why? Well, there's the abuse issue for one.
    I'm one of the few that support raising the age limit to 17-hell, I'd raise it to 18-but they will have to STRICTLY enforce it in order for a 17 year old age limit to work.

  5. I feel that the constant drive for TV viewers and "mass appeal" is what's killing so many sports. Take Twenty20 cricket as one example.

    Everyone feels the need to compete with the Worldwide juggernaut that is football when it's just not possible. Sports need to cater to their actual fans rather than trying to change in order please people who couldn't care less.

  6. Couldnt agree more! I am so much more interested in the girls that have been around for awhile. They are interesting and more importantly their gymnastics is interesting!

  7. I'm not a fan of the sex sells argument (despite it's truth!) although it certainly is better to ogle at women than girls...but the idea of having mature people as role models is very, very appealing!

  8. This is a fabulous post. I, too, realised the casual fan prefers mature athletes when I attended the Queensland State Championships with my mother-in-law (who doesn't know anything about gymnastics) the other day. At the Queensland State Championships, the elite gymnasts (IDP 10, Junior International, Senior International) compete together with national Level 9s and 10s and rhythmic gymnasts. Guess whom my mother-in-law was watching while I was watching the tiny IDP 10 kids? The national Level 9s and 10s, because they looked like women. She also said she preferred the rhythmic gymnasts to the artistic gymnasts we had come to see because the girls were more elegant. When I pointed out that her favourite gymnasts were by no means the best ones in the arena, she shrugged and said, 'I don't care, they are the ones I like.' That's a casual fan for you. If her example is anything to go by, I think most casual fans would be quite happy to see less difficult routines performed by more feminine-looking gymnasts (hotness optional).

    As much as I hate to say it, gymnastics is never going to get its glamour back unless we get some glamorous older gymnasts to raise the sport's profile considerably.

  9. While I agree that older gymnasts can be far more interesting in interviews and fluff pieces, I still don't want to see many of the best gymnasts in the world eliminated from top level competition due to their age. If the age limit had been 18 in 2008, 43 of the 97 WAG gymnasts at the Olympics would have been ineligible. Half of the best gymnasts in the world would have been stuck at home in the junior ranks. That includes 15 of the 24 gymnasts from the top 4 countries (5 Chinese, 3 Americans, 4 Romanians, and 3 Russians) and 4 of the top 6 gymnasts in the all around (Shawn Johnson, Yang Yilin, Ksenia Semenova, Jiang Yuyuan). Most of the all around champions from the last 3 decades would have been ineligible to compete. I love older competitors, but I don't want to eliminate so many top competitors because they aren't "media friendly" enough. Also, many of the other "every four years" sports (track and field, swimming, etc.) have adult competitors, but they still get virtually no mainstream media attention between Olympics (even with a dominating superstar like Phelps, very few people pay attention to swimming outside of Olympics). I'm more sympathetic to the worries about abuse with young gymnasts, however since juniors are still throwing just as hard of tricks as the seniors (if not harder) - and seem to be racking up injuries at about the same rate - I don't really think that the age limit is helping a whole lot in that respect. I definitely think that there should be some age limit, but I'm probably more in favor of lowering it than raising it. Nevertheless, this is a really interesting - and unique - perspective on the issue. Thanks for a good read as always.

  10. Fascinating. I have to agree with your analysis. While I'm anti-age limit (I thought it would be good to help protect the girls, but it's not doing that), and I would never favor raising the age limit (esp. for media relations), I think you make a very valid point that older athletes are more general-audience friendly. I think it comes down to a widespread discomfort with putting children in the roles socially proscribed for adults (and limiting their ability to act out the roles proscribed for children). For one thing, the vast majority of sports fans think of teenage athletes as their children who are playing rec league, or high school, or traveling teams at most - not as the top level, international athletes. For another, I'm just thinking about my dad and all the gymn my sister and I (non-gymnasts) have dragged him along for, and I can imagine most grown men are just not comfortable watching fifteen year old girls dance around in leotards. Further, I think you're right that the mid-teen gymnasts just don't have much story to tell, charisma in interviews, or relatability for the general public. Not only are these gymnasts young to begin with, but, for all the good gymn does for them (and I think it does/can), they're so sheltered they seem even younger. I think about Carly Patterson after she won the gold medal - she couldn't make it through the briefest interview without it being painful, which is not surprising, considering she was still so young/sheltered that she had security guards leading her by the hand across the arena to sign interviews on the post-Olympic gymn tour (true story - they weren't there to protect her, it was like a dad and his three year old). I think that makes the general audience very uncomfortable too - people don't want to think about little girls being warehoused in gyms to the point that they only have dolls/have never eaten salad dressing (Moceanu)/need a security guard to hold their hand to feel secure. It feels much more normal, comfortable, safer, and relatable for the general audience to watch college age women.

  11. An interesting perspective, but I'm inclined to agree with Dee. My thought was that adults competing doesn't help raise the profile of my other favourite sport - figure skating. I accept that it happens, but I also hate to think of artistic sports having an oogle factor - eeekkkk!

  12. I'm anti-age limit because I think it does jack shit to protect gymnasts. That has been proven time and time again. I think it should go back to 14 because really it's not doing anything. why keep beating a dead horse?

    However, I would love if more older gymnasts competed. their charisma and drive are palpable. The gymnasts who stick around for multiple quads are the gymnasts who love the sport and truly want to compete on that level. It's heartbreaking to watch footage of Moceanu or Phillips because their lives were the gym. It's sad. I don't get that feeling from a gymnast like ASac or Bhardwaj.

  13. I don't have an opinion on the gymnasts' age when they are on the podium. But I definitely agree that older girls make better sports ambassadors/celebrities in the media. Many older gymnasts' interviews have been colorful and insightful. Of course, that's also because the correspondents have more material to work with - they have a back story to outline their interview questions. When nothing is known about the gymnasts, they get bland and generic questions like, "What does winning this medal mean to you?" and blah blah blah. How could any gymnast, regardless of age, possibly come up with an interesting and original answer to that?

  14. Heather said

    If they don't raise the age limit they need to form some sort of professional gymnastics competitions (and not the throw-away ones they had right after Atlanta with a sub-par field!) I have been hoping for a professional gymnastics circuit for a while now to keep the older gymnasts in the sport. If ice skating can have pro competitions, why not gymnastics? There is no reason why gymnasts should feel like they have to retire if they don't think they can hang on for another Olympics to compete with the little ones. I really think a professional world cup would be very popular around the world and make gymnastics something that fans will watch more than just during the Olympics.

  15. It was interesting to see the age limit reviewed in a new light, and I agree for the non-gymnastics world it would bring in more popularity and perhaps Interest. However for the rest of us who have allways been gymnastics fans I believe raising the age limit is a bad idea. Purely because Gymnastics being the unique sport it is, most girls peak around 14-15 or 16. Their are exceptions to every case and this is not the case for everyone, but for most gymnasts it is. If the age limit was raised to 18 or older then, yes the athletes would be more mature but to me it wouldnt be as spectacular and inmpressive. Part of the appeal is appreciating the talent of athletes that are just so young. Over the years it would surely be better to see the difficulty of gymnastics improving rather than decreasing.

  16. I'm not wholly averse to raising the age limit a bit for major competitions, for exactly the reasons you outlined. However, if the age limit is indeed raised, the FIG MUST hold a world championships for juniors. Most other sports have world championships for juniors; why not gymnastics? If I had my way, I'd hold a senior world championships one year and a junior worlds the next year. That way, both hardcore fans like ourselves and casual fans would get something they like.

  17. You raise some excellent points Couchy. When watching Beijing I was loving China and Shawn and a few other darlings as well as Nastia while my husband was wanting to see ASac every minute of the coverage. She's hot! He still talks about her and was excited she's attempting a comeback. Also loved her Gatorade ad. Either way his slight obsession made it easier for me to watch the gym coverage without being bothered by his commentary about how 'strange' some of those 'little girls' look.

    I think its more up to the media and moreso the associations to pick their stories. Eg Say 2012 comes round and we have Dasha back and Lauren and Ash Brennan for Aus and the remainder of the team were Amelia McGrath, Georgia Rose Brown and a current IDP10 girl (Just a complete hypothetical). GA should push the older girls into the media more, in normal clothes, on fashion shoots and providing good quality interviews. Those three girls are pretty, athletic and not to mention awesome at their sport and could help raise the image towards the general adult public. If this was to occur we could have it both ways because the over 18 girls are out there, regardless of if they're getting medals they should be getting camera time. I think that the media just needs to pick up on these girls and promote them to the general public and ensure they're covered during the competition. This would be appealing to the general public while allowing the gym fans to appreciate the awesome-ness of the 15-17 year olds.

  18. PolyisTCOandbannedJuly 4, 2010 at 6:55 PM

    It's not just sex, although that's a big part of it. We are used to thinking of women as more grown up and stronger than girls. And look at the difference of men and boys in gym? But something strange about gym (or females) that makes them better prepubescent.

  19. Great points! This is an interesting perspective on the age limit.

    I don't think there should be an age limit, though. But since there is one, it should be lowered to turning 15 during the Olympic year like it used to be. These gymnasts work really hard to get to the Olympics, and they deserve more than one chance to get there; especially now since teams have been lowered to five members. Argh! That's not fair to the gymnasts.

    If the FIG does raise the age limit again, then they should also increase the team members to give more gymnasts a chance for Worlds and Olympics.

  20. I have mixed feelings about age limits. As a fan, however, sometimes what makes an athlete interesting is a long career in the public eye; if I've watched an athlete's ups and downs over the years, it's a more compelling story. Age limits often mean an athlete participates in only a few televised competitions, and it's harder for fans to get interested in them.