As we head into the intense two week period of time that happens every four years, known as the summer Olympics, I was noticing how much the ages of athletes varied from one sport to another.
Dara Torres is a remarkable example. She is a 45-year-old, 12-time Olympic champion swimmer, who narrowly missed qualifying for the 2012 American squad. Dara was the first and only swimmer from the United States to compete in five Olympic Games (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008), and, at age 41, was the oldest swimmer ever to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic team, winning silver medals in three different events. This is more than twice the age at which most swimmers hit their peak Olympic performance age! Dara defied the odds and she almost did it again. And here are eleven other Olympians over the age of 35. Yet, you would never see a 45-year old gymnast competing.
I wondered which variables contribute the most to becoming a world-class athlete in specific sports? And why do the average ages of elite athletes have marked differences in certain competitions? I decided to dig into this a little bit, so I did a little research. The following table lists some interesting contrasts regarding optimal ages for being the best at a sport:[1,3]
|Sport:||Women (age)||Men (age)|
*age range of 2012 Olympic team
I looked at two of the most visible athletic competitions in the summer games to understand the age differential between the two:
1. Women’s gymnastics (or perhaps this should be called “girls gymnastics”) and
2. Sprinting (men’s and women’s 100 & 200 meters)
Olympic gymnasts tend to be very young. (Remember 14-year old Montreal Olympic gold-winner, Nadia Comaneci?) Female gymnasts start year-round training at a young age. They train nearly every day for hours throughout the year. A number of studies have shown that intense training delays some of these athletes’ biological development by 1-2 years often delaying onset of menses. The delays in reaching puberty are thought to be related to low body fat and hormone imbalance. Studies have shown that these athletes are also shorter and have higher ratios of height to shoulder width/hip width measurements and smaller pelvic size.[4, 5] This explains why pre-pubescent girls who have had many years to train and build muscle, but do not yet have the body changes associated with puberty, attain the highest scores.
Since the Olympics only occurs every four years, the window of opportunity, for a delayed pubescent gymnast capable of being able to compete in the world’s top athletic events, is fairly narrow. Given that 16 is the minimum age of to compete in gymnastics, it’s not surprising that some countries such as China in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, have lied about the ages of their female gymnasts.
Olympic sprinters, Usain Bolt (men’ 100 & 200 m) and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (women’ 100 m), were both age 21 in the 2008 Olympics when they won gold. This follows the pattern as observed by Schultz and Schwellnus that identifies 21-23 as the optimal ages for being the fastest sprinters. In the Olympic sprints in the coming weeks, Bolt and Fraser-Pryce will both be 25, whereas Bolt’s primary challenger, Yohan Blake, is just 22. There is a fair amount of publicity about a couple of 30-year-olds (Tyson Gay and Veronica Campbell-Brown) who will be challenging the youngsters. Or will the 25-year-old former champions win it?
There are dozens of factors that can impact many Olympic sports. These include psychomotor factors that precision sports like shooting require such as control precision, multi-limb coordination, reaction time, speed of limb movement, rate control, and arm-hand steadiness. Physical proficiency factors that young gymnasts need include extent flexibility, dynamic flexibility, explosive strength, dynamic strength, and gross body coordination and stamina. The physical factors that have the greatest impact in rigorous sports like track and swimming are maximum oxygen uptake (VO2), maximal heart rate, and blood lactase levels (threshold).
The surprising age differential between sports at which athletes hit their peak seemed counter-intuitive to me until I had a better grasp of the different variables involved in specific sporting events. The non-physiological factors that all athletes need to develop into champions include comprehension, experience, motivation and behavior,1 but these will only take an athlete so far. Athletes like Dara Torres show us that, with continued training and competing in the right sport, it is possible to push the age of competition even older.
- Schulz R, Curnow C. Peak Performance and Age Among Super Athletes: Track and Field, Swimming, Baseball, Tennis, and Golf. J Psych Science. 1988;33(5):113-120.
- Schwellnus M. Olympic Textbook of Medicine in Sport. Blackwell Publishing. 1988, 1st ed. P. 2.
- Bompa T, Haff G. Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. 1999.
- Klentrou P, Plyley M. Onset of puberty, menstrual frequency, and body fat in elite rhythmic gymnasts compared with norm al controls. Br J Sports Med. 2003 Dec;37(6):490-4.
- Schevchenko I, Abramov VV, Givson PT, Omar HA. Medical supervision of young female athletes training in complex coordinational sports. Int. J Adolesc Med Health. 2008;20(3):343-51.
- Peltenburg AL, Erich WB, Bernink MK, et al. Biological maturation, body composition, and growth of female gymnasts and control groups of schoolgirls and girl swimmers, aged 8 to 14 years: a cross-sectional survey of 1064 girls. Int J Sports Med. 1984;5(1):36-42.