Some of these athletes have just begun puberty. Will the Olympics destroy their bodies?
British diving star Tom Daley is 14.
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?