Is she or isn’t she? Who really cares?

I love Olympic gymnastics as much as I love Olympic figure skating. I watch both sports intently exactly one week every four years. Otherwise there’s just too much obscure nonsense for me to cope with, especially in figure skating. Pretty rough stuff for me to say, because I used to be an Adult-level figure skater.

One of the many similarities between the two sports is ever-present controversy. In figure skating, you can’t have a competition without it. I’ve even seen bruh-ha-ha’s in local ISIA events, for crying out loud — these are the “open” events where anyone who can stand in skates is welcome and there’s nothing more to win than a cheap trophy made of mystery metal. The 2002 double-gold incident in the Olympic pairs event was nothing new to me. You step on an ordinary skating rink during a freestyle (figure skating practice session) any day of the week and there’s always something like that going on, albeit usually well beneath the surface.

I suspect most sports have their bitchy angles like that because the thing is, sports are silly.


But there are less-silly issues at play here. For instance, a similarity particular to the women’s division of both gymnastics and figure skating is the persistent wishful thinking that a female can only be an athlete before she visibly becomes a woman.

During the 1990’s in figure skating, it was increasingly believed that any girl over the typical age of puberty was probably too old to skate in the Olympics because her breasts and hips would hamper her rotation in those all-important triple jumps. The moment that questionable theory took hold, the mad rush was on to promote younger and younger girls to the Senior and then hopefully the international elite ranks, trying to beat the clock on puberty putting an end to the their triple hopping skills.

Around the same time a competing theory, stating that the real type of athlete needed was an older girl with huge muscular thighs, quietly disappeared. It hasn’t been heard of since, probably because delicate skating dresses can look rather silly draped over bulging muscles. One famous skater (who was also a great jumper) actually did have thunder thighs and took to wearing longer skirts; finally she became so beloved that seemingly just for her, the sport dropped its mandate that female skaters wear skirts.

However, skirts on females remain the norm in singles and pair skating and the sport’s ruling body continues, to this day, to try to extract multiple triple and even quad jumps out of bird-boned teenagers who look lovely in those little dresses. It continues to work only until the girls grow up and/or start suffering horrifying injuries. One has to be 16 these days to be an Olympic skater, but sometimes even being 16 doesn’t help your hips stay together if there isn’t enough tough meat on the joints to protect them.

The fact is that triple and quad jumps are thrilling to watch on television and also are extremely difficult — and are absolutely required at the elite level. But figure skating has never been specifically about jumping, and has suffered in quality during eras when jumping was emphasized above all else. It’s an intricate sport that takes at least a decade to master, and some of the little girls who soared to the top during the prepubescents-rule era probably had only just started to walk ten years before. As a result, what we got in the 1990’s was a succession of tiny jumpers who couldn’t actually skate. Yes they could do triple hops, but they had no idea of any of the more difficult concepts that not only make figure skating a lovely sport, but a relatively safe one as well. For example, it takes most skaters (even elite skaters) years to figure out why their blades have two edges.

The scariest part of this was that one could include correct jumping technique on the long list of concepts the triple hoppers were ignorant of. Their triple hopping relied entirely on the fact that they were tiny things being whirled around by big heavy skates. Even worse than that, their bodies were not ready for the g-forces one encouters in landing a multi-rotational jump, let alone landing thousands of them. Yet they were touted as the best athletes in the sport rather than the babies-on-carnival-rides they actually were.

And then they started getting hurt.

While we’re on the subject, women’s tennis also had problems with prepubescent athletes taking over. I remember several who had one shot at their disposal: the “moon ball.” They nearly bored women’s tennis out of existence. Inevitably the hip injury and attitude problems started blossoming, and tennis’s ruling body quickly came to the conclusion that female athletes simply had to be older to compete consistently at the international level. End of Prepubescent Rule in Women’s Tennis. And thank goodness.

Women’s gymnastics has owned the age-and-size issue for much, much longer than any other sport, but only dealt with it in recent decades, and when forced to. In gymnastics, the slow response of the ruling body seems to have been due to the fact that the tiny baby girls could, in fact, surpass the older girls in terms of skill, which wasn’t the case in figure skating or tennis.

In spite of that, nowadays to be in the Olympics you have to be sixteen or older. I remember a few years back hearing some color commentator whine that the sixteen-and-up rule was excluding the “best athletes” from the top level of the sport. All I can say is, if age and size are the sole determinations of athletic ability, then it isn’t much of a sport. Thankfully the ruling body seems to have agreed. It’s about time.

However, from the looks of it, it still isn’t time for some of the Chinese girls. There’s been a lot of controversy about this, with U.S. fans whining and the rest of the world pointing up all the wrongs they feel they’ve been dealt and saying “nyah, nyah, nyah” to the whining U.S. fans. Olympic togetherness, anyone? Hah! It’s been more like a troll parade, and a very silly one at that.

My take on the Chinese gymnasts’ age controversy is that for sure, I would never guess that some of the Chinese girls are sixteen. One in particular looks no older than twelve. There are a number of ways to explain this, starting with the fact that Asian women do seem to have a tendency to be small, and perhaps to develop later than their Western counterparts. Then there’s the fact that these Chinese gymnasts are true hot-house flowers. They were likely taken away from their families at an early age and put in an institution where nothing but their gymnastics potential was considered, and perhaps the type of girl chosen for that situation is typically a spectacularly late bloomer. Perhaps even their diet contributed to their appearance — who knows. So they could be sixteen.

But in the end, who cares.

Yes, you heard me. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. The relative Amazons of the U.S. team — all of them definitely sixteen or older — almost equaled the Chinese mites in terms of performance. Take away that inexplicable Olympic home-field advantage that seems to affect every Olympics no matter where the games are held, and they may have surpassed them. The fact that some of the Chinese athletes appeared to be underage (and certainly all were tiny), seemed to grant the Chinese team no overwhelming advantage. This to me is enough to blast away any remaining objections to the “you have to be sixteen to be in the Olympics” rule. Give the sport back to young women with real muscles and figures and you don’t get anything less in terms of true athleticism. You do gain in beauty and experience.

In other words, stop judging a women’s sport by male standards, and suddenly breasts and hips are no longer a problem. And little girls stop getting hurt so often.


But ultimately, like in figure skating, none of it matters. As I said, these are two sports that are rooted in controversy and always will be. In 2000 years, no one will remember these controversies and possibly even the sports involved. By that time we’ll have long since moved on to something else probably equally as controversial.

Why will we forget? Because sports are forgettable. They don’t really do anything in the world but suck up resources. They’re not even performed as war games, as they once were, so they don’t serve any purpose whatsoever. Hear that? Sports are silly.

The rules matter, because civilization is built on rules and/or the lack of them. That’s the only reason why, if some of the Chinese girls are truly underage, there may be a problem here. After all, there is a rule in place; some rules are silly but this one is deadly serious. We’re talking about kids maybe not being able to walk anymore by age twenty because they were competing too much and at too high of a level at age twelve.

However, all this controversy and ugliness and sniping over the appearance of rule-breaking do about as much good for the world as your average Nazi. Get over it, folks. Just sit back and enjoy. If there was actually some Chinese fudging of ages, it will come out later and you can enjoy that too. It’s silly entertainment, after all. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be on television along with the politicians.