Just a number

A dangerous Olympic myth about age is being debunked

“It’s advantageous for the young gymnast to see that your career can go past the age of 16.”

13-year-old Momiji Nishiya during her Olympic skateboarding gold performance

On Sunday, two 13-year-olds, Momiji Nishiya of Japan and Rayssa Leal of Brazil, took home gold and silver medals in women’s street skateboarding. Syrian Hend Zaza, 12, competed in table tennis last Friday. American Katie Grimes, 15, competed Thursday in the 800m freestyle — and came in second. She’ll swim for a medal on Friday.

Also competing in Tokyo, we have Australian equestrians Mary Hanna, 66, and Andrew Hoy, 62. Oksana Chusovitina, competing for Uzbekistan, vaulted on Sunday at the age of 46 — the oldest gymnast to ever compete at the Games. When Abidihakim Abdirahman, 44, races on August 8, he’ll be racing as the oldest U.S. runner to make an Olympic team.

Is there a magic formula that will reveal to us why different sports have different prime ages — and how some people seem to get around them? How is Zaza at the top of her sport — as is 58-year-old table tennis Olympian Ni Xialian?

When you ask the experts, it seems like age really doesn’t have to bring you down, no matter the sport. Success can come at all ages, and the idea that younger is better is getting debunked.

What’s more, associating youth with sports isn't just wrong, it's potentially dangerous for athletes. Ultimately, there's a difference between being able to succeed in the here-and-now versus having a long, successful sports career.

Do younger athletes have an edge?

Until fairly recently, it was a commonly held belief that preteen gymnasts were tops. Especially before puberty, the notion was, girls were more lightweight, giving them an edge on any skills that involved propelling through the air.

The Women's Street Final medal ceremony on day three of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

“Those myths have been completely debunked,” Elspeth Hart, director of the Gymnastics Medicine Clinic at Steward Health Care’s St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, tells Inverse.

Myths like this can be harmful to athletes of all ages. Believing you’re already past your prime as a teenager can be tough to handle, mentally. “It’s advantageous for the young gymnast to see that your career can go past the age of 16,” Hart says.

“When athletes are very young, they're very impressionable.”

Likewise, a “lighter is better” framework can hurt athletes physically, too. In rock climbing, for instance, these types of myths have been known to lead to eating disorders in the climbing community, explains Carrie Cooper, a doctor of physical therapy and owner of Rev Physical Therapy in Salt Lake City, which specializes in climbers.

“We’re dealing with this head-on by looking at the evidence — does weight actually matter? And it’s being shown that it doesn’t,” Cooper tells Inverse. “Having lower body weight does not equate to better climbing outcomes.”

Does older actually mean wiser?

Despite displays of youthfulness in sports, experts and research suggest there is such a thing as getting involved too young.

Often seen at the Olympics is the culmination of something called “sports specialization,” what Hart describes as “only doing one sport at a very young age.” However, studies suggest sports specialization does increase an athlete’s chance of injury, she says.

Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan performs on the balance beam during the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Cao Can/Xinhua via Getty Images

Adding a minimum age to all sports, not just gymnastics, would reduce the chance of injury overall, Hart says.

Competing on the international stage at such a young age can take a serious mental toll, too. Even when physical safety isn’t in question, there may be psychological reasons supporting the idea that it’s better for Olympians’ health to wait until they are older to compete.

“When athletes are very young, they're very impressionable,” Hart explains.“They haven't quite grown into themselves. By allowing them to be older and more mature, they can grasp the concept of being at the Olympics and be in a better mental state. It not only helps them now, but 20 years from now.”

For a sport like climbing, older athletes might even have an edge.

“Climbing has a lot of problem-solving, body awareness, and strength. So as we age, we actually get better at those things, we get more experienced,” Cooper says.

Training for the long haul — Although the youngest athletes are stealing the media spotlight in Tokyo, older athletes may actually become more common in the future.

For example, in the last five or so years, “rock climbers, and especially competitive rock climbers, have really accepted physical therapy into their training regimens as a way to not only stay healthy but also to recover faster from injuries,” Cooper says.

Coaches, too, are paying attention to how training affects growing tissues, and changing the way they’re working with younger athletes.

“The long-term competitive career for a rock climber is actually pretty long, into their 30s,” Cooper says. Coinciding is an improved understanding of how to treat climbing injuries better, allowing climbers to keep “competitive for the long-term careers,” she explains.

Olympic hopeful Janja Garnbret trains on June 18, 2021.

Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Overall, athletes of all ages are focusing more on injury prevention, mental training, and their overall health and wellness, Hart says. Norms are changing, like not pushing through injuries and taking a mental health break when you need it — just look at the recent decisions made by Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.

This new normal will allow athletes to retire from competition when they want to, rather than when they’re physically or emotionally spent.

We need to be “thinking of the athlete not only right now, but 20 years from now,” Hart says. “That's going to be important in their not only athletic career, but also their personal lives after they're done with the Olympics.”

“I think that as our breadth of knowledge grows, and our ability to train athletes thoughtfully grows with it, the reasons for retirement will be less injury-oriented, and more about energy or personal choice,” Cooper says. “I think that there are no bounds. Age should not be a boundary for performance.”

As for the massive age range at the Olympics? “It's incredible,” Cooper says. “I mean, that's what the Olympics are for. To inspire us.”

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