You Can't Rob Peter To Pay Paul

The 2005-born seniors should be allowed to compete at the 2021 Games.

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On Tuesday, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan issued a joint statement making official what we all knew was going to happen—the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be postponed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. This was hardly a surprising announcement given the fact that every sporting event in 2020 has either been canceled or postponed due to the pandemic. The postponement marks the first time since 1944 (when they were canceled due to World War II) that the Olympics will not go ahead as planned.

Now that the Games have officially been postponed, likely for a year until July 2021, it’s time for the IOC, the international sports federations, and the athletes to sort out what that means for their respective sports. All of the athletic disciplines in the Summer Games will be impacted by the new timeline. They will have to work out new Olympic qualification timetables and events. They will have to figure out what to do with the athletes already qualified and the points many had already earned towards Olympic berths. It will undoubtedly be a messy process for all involved. 

But it will perhaps be the messiest when it comes to gymnastics in general and women’s gymnastics in particular. The sport possesses some unique features that will make the daunting challenge of reconfiguring the process for 2021 even more daunting. And chief among them is gymnastics’ age rules. 

Perhaps the biggest decision that FIG will have to make in regards to the postponement is what to do about the gymnasts who currently compete as juniors but will turn 16—the age minimum for senior competition, including Olympic competition, in women’s gymnastics—next year and become eligible to compete as seniors. Should the brand new seniors be allowed to vie for a berth at the postponed Games when they would have been ineligible to compete this year? Or should spots on the 2021 Olympic team be reserved for athletes who were age-eligible to compete in 2020?

Among the ranks of juniors who will become senior eligible in 2021 is 15-year-old Konnor McClain. Her birthday is 32 days after the 2020 eligibility cutoff. McClain is generally considered to be the best junior gymnast in the U.S. and perhaps one of the best juniors in the world. In addition to McClain, Skye Blakely and Sydney Barros, two other top U.S. juniors, will enter the senior pool next year. And so will Viktoria Listunova, the current world junior champion from Russia. All of these gymnasts, but in particular McClain and Listunova, can potentially shake up the Olympic picture next year if they’re given a chance. 

While other sports have age minimums, they are most impactful in the “early specialization” sports such as women’s gymnastics and women’s figure skating. In those disciplines, athletes tend to peak anywhere from 15 to 18. This means that a gymnast who would otherwise be among the very best in the world might not be eligible to compete at an Olympics or world championships. This doesn’t really happen much in other sports where athletes tend to peak well after the age minimum—that is, if the sport has even bothered to set one.

But in gymnastics, one year can mean the difference between going to the Olympics when you’re still in high school and going to the Olympics after you’ve graduated. If you have an unlucky birthday like McClain does, you have to weather the full four-year cycle in order to get your first shot at the Games. And four years is a long time in any sport. When it comes to the Olympics, 74 percent of Summer Olympians get just one berth. 

This is extra true in women’s gymnastics where injury and burnout rates are high and turnover is frequent. 

If we are going to talk about possibly including or excluding the 2005-born gymnasts from the postponed Olympics, we should probably take a look back at the history of the age minimum rule that this all pivots on. The first age minimum was implemented as early as 1970; back then, you had to be 14 to compete internationally. Contrary to popular lore, the age of gymnasts started to decline long before the debut of Nadia Comaneci, who was 14 when she scored the first Perfect 10s.

According to Mike Davis over at the Medal Count, if you had to choose a starting point for this trend, it would be 1952 at the USSR Championships. There, two relatively young gymnasts, Larissa Latynina, 18, and Genrieta Konovalova, 20, cracked the top 10. And the following year, they took the top two spots at Soviet nationals. (Latynina would go onto become an Olympic champion whose medal record was only surpassed by Michael Phelps in 2012, decades after she retired.) Previously, the Soviet gymnasts who were winning were older than Latynina and Konovalova were when they first started to enjoy competitive success. Latynina’s and Konovalova’s wins led to a shift in athlete recruitment; coaches started looking for young girls to train.

And in the 1960s, the gymnasts got even younger. In 1964, Larisa Petrik won Soviet nationals at 15 years old, defeating Latynina, who had just turned 30. And the following year, Natalia Kuchinskaya won the Soviet title at 16. In 1968, a 15 year old Ludmilla Tourischeva was a member of the Soviet Olympic team.

The sport’s first age minimum really had nothing to do with Comaneci or Olga Korbut, who would become gymnastics’ first true global superstar in 1972 when she was 17. 

But Comaneci and her young peers had a lot to do with the next age minimum change. In 1981, the age line jumped to 15. The final jump came in 1997 when the minimum was raised again from 15 to 16, which is where it remains. The reasons for the increasing age minimum has been, in my opinion, equal parts protection and protectionism. There are serious concerns about the pacing of young gymnasts. The hope was that raising the minimum would lead to a delay in increasing the training load on maturing bodies. There’s little indication that actually happened. Young gymnasts are still training long hours at high intensity. The injury rate is still staggering. And burnout is still an issue. Merely changing the age minimum doesn’t change coaching practices or training philosophies. Those are things that are much more difficult to reform. 

And then there's the protectionism part. Keeping the very young gymnasts out of senior events can help protect and extend the careers of older gymnasts who might not otherwise be able to keep up with the whippersnappers. It also helps protect the image of the sport as something that women, not just young girls, can excel at.

If the FIG decides to exclude next year’s new seniors, the reason would be due to protectionism, not protection. The newly-minted seniors would already be 16; the FIG had long ago decided that this was an acceptable age for gymnasts to enter the senior ranks. 

Of course, I totally understand why many fans, and perhaps even the 2020 gymnasts themselves, would want to limit the field to those who were eligible to earn an Olympic berth in 2020. What has happened to this generation of gymnasts is simply unfair, although the athletes seem to recognize that the postponement was absolutely necessary for the sake of public health. 

But there’s no fairness in denying the 2005 generation the opportunity to go after a 2021 berth. If the FIG decides to exclude the new seniors from Olympic consideration, all kinds of issues will arise. If the 2005 seniors are allowed to compete at U.S. nationals, for instance, you’d end up with something like what happened in 1997, the very first year that the age minimum of 16 was implemented. Vanessa Atler tied for first place at nationals, but couldn’t go to the world championships later that year. In fact, three of the top six that year couldn’t compete at 1997 worlds. The U.S. had to reach all the way down to ninth to field an age-eligible team. Imagine if McClain comes in second at 2021 nationals—young or not, no one is beating Simone Biles—and then can’t go onto Olympic Trials? It would be difficult to argue that you’re taking the very best gymnasts if you leave behind the second- or third-place finisher. 

Also, there are all of the international events leading up to the 2021 Olympics. Due to the cancelation of the World Cup and Continental Championships qualifiers this year, the planned 2021 international events might be recast as Olympic qualifying events if the canceled competitions can’t be rescheduled for some time in late 2020.

If the 2021 meets are transformed into Olympic qualifying events where gymnasts can earn points for themselves or for their federation, the 2005 seniors probably won’t be sent to compete because they can’t help their countries earn qualification points and berths for the Games. And even if some of the events don’t become qualifiers, it is unlikely that federations would send these 2021 Olympic ineligible gymnasts when they could be giving an eligible one the chance to get some more experience before the Games. The 2005 born gymnasts stand to lose much of their first senior season. And matters would get even worse for these new seniors if FIG decides to cancel the 2021 World Championships, a possibility raised by CBC journalist Scott Russell. (For a full breakdown on what moving the Olympics to 2021 will mean for gymnastics, check out this comprehensive post at the Medal Count.)

Trying to do right by the 2020 gymnasts by excluding the 2021 seniors would basically entail robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

And you can’t try to transport the 2020 Games, wholly unchanged, into 2021. Time marches on. There are gymnasts who are currently injured and would not have been able to recover in time for 2020 and will perhaps be able to vie for a berth in 2021.

Longtime Japanese national team member Asuka Teramoto ruptured her Achilles in February and was out of the picture for the Olympics. But with an extra year, she might be able to recover and compete in front of her home crowd.

Laurie Hernandez, a member of the 2016 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, was not generally expected to make the 2020 team because she returned to the sport with so little time to spare before the Tokyo Games. But with an extra year of training, she could become a legitimate contender for a 2021 berth.

The added year might change the outcome for these two gymnasts and many others. Some might get better and some might get injured in the upcoming year. Some might move on from the sport altogether. The Olympic picture for next year is going to change, regardless of whether or not the new seniors are permitted to compete. 

When I reached out to FIG with my questions about what the federation planned to do about the soon-to-be-seniors’ Olympic eligibility, whether FIG planned to hold the 2021 World Championships, and other issues related to the postponement of the Olympics, I was referred to a statement from FIG Secretary General Nicolas Buompane: “All decisions we will have to take depend on additional information needed and will have to be taken by our Executive Committee in close cooperation with our various Commissions, as well as in coordination with ASOIF and the IOC.” Usually, this kind of non-answer to detailed questions from an ossified institution would annoy me. But this time, I can’t really fault them for not having any answers yet. What has transpired over the last week is unprecedented. The last time the Olympic Games were canceled or postponed, the sport didn’t yet have age minimums and the Code of Points didn’t even exist. The first men’s Code came along in 1949; it was just 12 pages within the Technical Regulations booklet. This is uncharted terrain for FIG, just as it is for everyone else. 

Whatever FIG decides to do, the one thing that is certain is that the gymnastics competition in 2021 will look different than it would’ve appeared in 2020. You can’t stop time. 

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