In 1970, the Women’s Technical Committee set the competitive age limit at 14. One year later, they issued an explanation of sorts. It included a warning to members, recognizing that abusive methods were leaving child gymnasts damaged. By setting the age limit at 14, their hope was to see more “mature work” that displayed a “woman’s charm.”
Here’s what was recorded in the 1971 FIG bulletins about the question of age in women’s artistic gymnastics.
October 1970: Lowering the Age Limit
At the Women’s Technical Assembly in Ljubljana, the age limit was lowered to 14. Previously, gymnasts had to be 18, but there could be exceptions. For example, at the 1960 Olympics, 16-year-old gymnasts could compete:
Gymnasts, men and ladies, must be 18 years old during the year of the competition; they must be of the same nationality as the Federation to which they belong and must be a member of a federated association. A lady gymnast who has reached the age of 16, however, may be authorised to compete on the responsibility of the Federation to which she belongs. No lady gymnast under the age of 16 will be authorised to compete.Gymnastics Regulations, The Games of the XVII Olympiad, Rome
Then, the regulations changed. 18-year-olds were still preferred, but the age minimum was removed prior to the 1964 Olympics. In theory, a 10-year-old could have competed in Tokyo. (No 10-year-olds did.) Here’s what the 1964 rules for the Olympic Games state:
Male and female gymnasts must be at least 18 years of ageGymnastics Regulations, The Games of the XVIII Olympiad, Tokyo
during the year of the competition, be of the same nationality of the federation that is delegating them, and be a member of the federated association. However, a female gymnast under the age of 18 may compete under the sole responsibility of the federation to which she belongs.
Les gymnastes, hommes et dames, doivent avoir 18 ans révolus au cours de l’année du concours, être de la nationalité de la fédération qui les délègue et faire partie d’une société fédérée. Toutefois, une dame-gymnaste en dessous de 18 ans sera autorisée à concourir sous la seule responsabilité de la fédération à laquelle elle appartient.
In 1970, the FIG set a firm age minimum of 14. No 10 year-olds allowed. But the minutes do not offer much background information about the decision:
Age of the Gymnasts
By a large majority, it has been decided that participation in the competitions be limited to gymnasts who reach the age of 14 years during the year of the competition in question.
Women’s Technical Assembly, October 29, 1970, Ljulbjana
Bulletin d’information de la FIG, No. 2, 1971
October 1971: Commentary on Age and Abuse
One year later, at the 50th General Assembly, the Women’s Technical Committee offered comments on the age rules, loosely drawing connections between age, abusive training, and “disastrous physiological consequences.”
Here’s what was recorded in the minutes:
Age of the Gymnasts
Medical reports have given a warning and pointed out the dangers of abusive training without the necessary control. They are right. The gymnasts, even those in the olympic class, are not merely circus phenomena for whom the thrill of the performance accomplished masks the frequently disastrous physiological consequences.
Rational and progressive preparation of children is necessary, but, as is the case in certain federations, this must be done under rigorous control, using people who are aware of their responsibilities to give the training. Nobody should be so irresponsible as to think only of producing “competitive animals” hastily trained, frequently damaged and incapable of continued progress after a certain level has been reached.
It is true that a good pedagogic method takes a long time, but how much surer it is to obtain high-class gymnastic performances has been proved by the entire history of the great gymnastic champions whose fullness is manifested in their psychic and physiological “flowering.” “Fourteen years of age during the year of competition” — this is what the new regulation stipulates. *Let us hope that we shall see less of these children, so touching in their youthfulness unawareness, but still incapable of mature and harmonious work, being physically and intellectually forced to a degree of self-discipline necessary not only to achieve an impeccable technique, but also to demonstrate feminine charm.50th general assembly, Extract from the Minutes of the General Assembly Held on October 3, 1971, in Madrid
Bulletin d’information de la FIG, No. 4, 1971
*Note: The quotation above is from the FIG’s English translation of the minutes. (You can read the French in the image above.) I think that the final sentence of the translation is a little confusing and can send readers down a misinterpretation rabbit hole, so here’s an alternate translation:
Let’s hope we see as little as possible of these children, touching in their youth and unconscious boldness, but incapable of that harmonious work — mature, emotionally felt, physically and intellectually considered — and of that mastery necessary to showcase not only impeccable technique but also all of a woman’s charm.My translation
Souhaitons de voir le moins possible ces enfants, touchantes par leur jeunesse, leut hardiesse inconsciente, mais incapable de ce travail harmonieux mûri, senti, calculé physiquement et intellectuellement, de cette maîtrise nécessaire à faire valoir, non seulement une technique irréprochable, mais encore tout le charm de la femme.
My thought bubble
The Women’s Technical Committee seems to be adhering to the following logic: We, the Women’s Technical Committee, value “maturity,” “impeccable technique,” and a “woman’s charm” in our athletes. Child gymnasts are incapable of showing those traits because they haven’t “flowered” yet. By setting the age limit at 14, we hope to see more of the traits that we value. Additionally, because the aforementioned values require careful, considered, and long-term coaching to develop, we hope to distance ourselves from the hasty, abusive training that treats athletes as animals that can be tossed aside. Sure, child athletes, even those from abusive environments, can put on spectacular, delightful performances, but that is not what we, the Women’s Technical Committee, are looking for.
(It’s important to note that this dichotomy of abused children vs. mature women breaks down. Athletes over the age of 14, including those who display a “woman’s charm,” can be survivors of abuse, as well.)
Why does this matter?
First, the excerpt above offers an explanation as to why the FIG set 14 as the minimum age. Gymnastics fans have wondered about the rationale behind the decision for years. The bulletin might not provide the fullest explanation (why 14 instead of 13 or 15?), but it is an explanation.
Second, the bulletin actually used the word “abusif” (abusive) rather than a word like “harsh,” “demanding” or “grueling.” In other words, the FIG’s bulletin shows that abusive coaching is not a new topic in gymnastics. It did not suddenly show up on the shores of North America when Eastern Bloc coaches emigrated. (How many times have you heard that facile, Cold War-era explanation for abuse in the United States?) This dark side of the sport has been around for decades, and the gymnastics community, including the FIG, has known about it.
But they didn’t know how to deal with it in an effective manner, and therein lies the problem.
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