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Too Young to Compete?

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Some of these athletes have just begun puberty. Will the Olympics destroy their bodies?


He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan are China's top competitors on the uneven bars. Kexin is reportedly 14 and Yuyuan is reportedly 15.

British diving star Tom Daley is 14.

And China's Yang Yilin and Li Shanshan, two gymnasts who both won gold this year, are 16 years old.

While these kids are undoubtedly performing amazing feats, let's not forget: They're kids, and in some cases, tweens. And while the minimum age for competing in the Olympics is 16, some are dodging the rules by entering at the age of 12. Which means they've presumably been training for years--some even since the age of three.

But is training at such a young age safe? While there's no doubt athletes consume a lot of calories, they're also burning off an excessive amount. (Has anyone ever seen an overweight gymnast?)

"In order for a young body to attain maximal growth, bones and muscles need adequate nutrition and calories," says Dr. Cara Natterson, pediatrician and author of Your Newborn: Head to Toe and Your Toddler: Head To Toe. "If a child, pre-teen, or even a teenager who is not done growing trains at such a high level that she's not able to consume as many calories as her body uses on a daily basis, she won't gain adequate weight, which can cause developmental problems."

"For starters, if you don't eat enough especially during your growth spurt, your bones simply won't grow. So you may end up a lot shorter than you were supposed to be," she says.

But even more concerning: "If you don't gain enough weight, you can even delay the onset of puberty," she adds. "For example, gymnasts are often very petite with smaller breasts. What's more, when you delay puberty, you also delay getting your first period. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule."

So how will such intense training impact a kid's body in the future? "Unfortunately, we aren't entirely sure how Olympic training will affect health down the road," explains Dr. Cara. "But if a child is chronically undernourished, her overused joints can become arthritic sooner than they otherwise would have."

"On the other hand, exercise does have beneficial effects on bone strength, cardiovascular health, and muscle development," she says. "It all depends upon the particular child, the sport, the degree of intensity, and her overall health and nutritional status in order to predict whether a pre-teen Olympic athlete will be a healthy adult."

What about Michael Phelps's famous diet of greasy pizza, enriched pasta, pancakes, and grits? Sure, he's a 23-year-old man, and has finished growing. But is all this fatty food improving his performance, or does it matter what he eats as long as he's getting enough calories?

"We all know a balance of fruits, vegetables, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats provides the best nutrition," says Dr. Cara. "Michael Phelps burns calories much faster than the rest of us, and it can be difficult for his body to keep up with those expenditures. Therefore, he can afford to eat foods--at least some of the time--that the rest of us try to avoid."

"My guess is that while he may indulge in pizza and pancakes and pasta before practices and meets, he probably eats his fair share of vegetables and fruits as well," she says.

Would you want your kid to train at such an early age?

next: Yearbook Yourself!
4 comments so far | Post a comment now
Mary August 23, 2008, 6:18 PM

Well, I think your write-up needs to specify that the “age 16” rule is for the gymnastics—each sport has it’s own rules. For women’s gymnastics, the teen must TURN 16 during the calendar year of the Olympics. So a 15 year old competing now, could turn 16 in December 2008 and still be allowed to compete in the Olympics. Diving has it’s own age minimum requirements and so forth. When Nadia won the gold, she was only 14. That’s because at that time, the rules were different than the current rule. The issue is not whether He Kexin had gold-worthy skills…clearly she’s a top gymnast. The issue is whether or not it’s fair to sneak in a 14 year old when all of the other countries who have top-notch 14 year olds aren’t allowed to compete. It used to be if you were old enough to vault, you were old enough to go to the Olympics but the rules were put in place to keep essentially “children” who don’t know the risks well enough, out of the Olympics. To me, that is fair. If He K. is underage, then she needs to lose her medal. I’ll even go one step further and say that if the Chinese govt. purposely issued her passport knowing that they were falsifying it, then I think ALL of the Chinese athletes should lose their medals, too. Because this was probably not a case of an individual trying to break a rule, as we see when we have an individual using steroids. This is most likely a case of a govt. trying to put their best face forward, and using He K. as a tool to get there. This is dishonesty at the highest level and it should not be tolerated (if it is in fact, true).
To the question of would I want my child to train so hard this young? In the way they train in the US and Canada, where the kids live at home, sure. But not the way they do it in China, or Russia, where the kids go and live at these sports schools and only go home a couple of times a year. One of China’s woman gymnasts said she hasn’t been home in over a year, doesn’t know if her parents even know that she is IN the Olympics, and doesn’t even know if they are going to be watching the Olympics. How sad is that? As far as what Michael Phelps eats… I think he does eat for what his sport requires. Clearly, he’s not fat. I would also suspect he’s getting more health monitoring of the dangerous stuff like cholesterol count and so forth, than the average American. So I’m not going to judge what he puts in his mouth! More power to him.

Mermaid Princess August 23, 2008, 11:52 PM

The flaw in the logic of whether it’s appropriate for 14-year old girls to perform in the Olympics due to the strenuous training they go through is that they would go through this training REGARDLESS of the Olympics because there are other competitions out there that require such training.

The Olympics is NOT the only event where gymnasts, ice skaters, divers etc perform. There are numerous other high-end competition events where these young people train. You think they’ll somehow stop training because it’s not the Olympics anymore??? That’s a dumb way to think because then the 13, 14-year old girls will train still harder so that when they are of age they’ll perform at the Olympics. It’s not that hard to figure it out. Stop trying to grasp for excuses why the Chinese gymnasts should lose their gold.

If the Chinese gymnast team should lose their gold it should be be because of what Mary had said about other countries not putting their better 13-year old gymnasts in the Olympics (but I definitely don’t agree that all Chinese Olympians should lose their gold. That was the most stupid suggestion I’ve ever heard of). But the fact is the damage has been done. The controversy over their age has been brought up well before the gymnastics competition, went on during the competition, went on after the competition… but nobody did anything until very recently by the IOF, and I say it’s too late now. People had known about the controversy and only NOW they want to investigate??? Ridiculous.

Anyway, I think the article doesn’t prove anything and means very little. Just because talented gymnasts won’t be participating in the Olympics doesn’t mean they would train less for other competitions and future Olympic games.

And btw, these sports camps where Chinese gymnasts live away from home may sound harsh and foreign to us but it’s because the USA is not a country familiar with schools away from home. In Europe and other countries boarding schools are common where students don’t go home every weekend and only see their families on holidays. It’s not a surprise or shocking to me especially if talented gymnasts come from rural areas of China. I try not to think the whole world is like the little box I live in.

AW August 24, 2008, 6:47 AM

He Kexin SWEARS BLIND that she is 16 and the Chinese are saying all the reports are mistakes (at the same time their government is altering them). She either lied then or is lying now. Either way, it’s not behavior fitting an Olympic gold medalist.

But I’m more afraid this will ruin the sport’s reputation for those who love to follow it. Issuing licenses to follow these girls longer in their career is a good theory, but it doesn’t stop the underlying problem. China could easily pick an entire team of unknown girls with no competition history and easily doctored backgrounds. I truly wonder if girls like He Kexin or Jiang Yuyuan will be too injured and stressed for London 2012.

Gilly August 25, 2008, 9:43 AM

As a mother it concerns me what these children go through in training. Yes, they are amazing and clearly would not get as far as they have without talent and yes, we should nurture and encourage our childrens talents. It would be great if these kids really and truly wanted this for themselves, that they still had time to be kids and no one pushed them beyond their limits. Of course, anyone thinking that would need a reality check, we all know what some parents can be like and I think that, as with everything, there is a mix here. Some really wanted it, some had no choice. Either way, I think there should be an age restriction that varies from sport to sport. This would not, however, keep parents from pushing their kids too far and wasting precious years of childhood.

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