Sky Brown, at the ripe old age of 13, is a skateboarder who will be representing team GB alongside her 15-year-old teammate Bombette. Sky is the youngest ever competitor to represent GB in the Summer Olympics, while figure skater Cecilia College, who was 11 when she competed in 1932, holds the equivalent record for the Winter Olympics(1). Across the involved nations, the youngest competitor to join the games in Tokyo this year, is the Syrian table tennis player Hend Zaza, who will only be 11 when she takes to the table. This means that she will not be much older than the youngest athlete ever known to the Olympics, the Greek, Dimitrios Loundras, who performed gymnastics in the 1896 games held in Athens at age 10(2).
Minimum age requirements for different sport categories mean that not all Olympians can start competing at the games at such a young age. For example, nowadays, Olympic divers must be at least 14, gymnasts 16, and for Tokyo 2020, boxers must have turned 18 before the end of 2019, meaning that there will be no boxers under the age of 19 allowed this year. However, there is a general perception that all Olympians start training and honing their skills for their chosen sport from a very young age. Indeed, the famous Olympians, Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, reportedly started practising gymnastics and swimming at the ages of six and seven, respectively(3). Many of us thus believe that we have run out of time to achieve athletic heroism, and we may even push our unfulfilled Olympic dreams onto our poor unsuspecting children not long after, or even before, they’ve clambered naively from the womb. But do all Olympians really start training so young, and if so, why?
The key areas of training, which all athletes and Olympians must excel in, include strength and conditioning, performance enhancement and injury prevention. To achieve excellence within their sport, athletes must optimise and connect both their health-related and skill-related fitness. Health-related fitness involves components such muscular strength, flexibility and stress recovery, while skill-related fitness concerns speed, agility, reaction time and balance(4).
Gymnastics is one of the main sports in which potential Olympians start such specialized training from what may seem to be an absurdly young age, with children often starting classes between the ages of 2 and 5. Despite well-voiced negativity surrounding the training of young children, with the idea that pushy parents are depriving their children of a “normal” childhood, there are many arguments for why elite athletes need to start training from a young age.
Of course, to start with, “practice makes perfect,” and starting young can simply mean that an athlete has had numerous years to work on their specific skill set. But then, you might argue, why can’t an athlete start training at 18 and qualify to compete at 28? For they would have had 10 years of practise, in the same way as those starting at age 6 who go on to compete at 16. This is where the link between a person’s age and body fitness comes into the equation.
There are many changes that happen to a human body as it ages that can affect performance, from a reduced ability to repair after injury to the more fundamental issues of muscle metabolism and heart rate. It is thought that human’s reach their physical peak between 25 and 35. Thereafter, there is a steady decline in physical fitness factors such as maximum heart rate, bone strength, lactate threshold and maximal oxygen consumption, which particularly affect performance in endurance sports(5). Another factor to consider is that as people age, their reaction times, which are incredibly important in sports like cricket and tennis, also increase in length.
However, the aging process alone, is not enough to explain why training from such a young age is important for sporting success. Another key factor is muscle memory(6), which is a term that is often misleadingly associated with being able to ride a bike after many years without practise (this should really be referred to as motor learning). Muscle memory has recently been shown to manifest as a very real change within muscle cells in response to exercise, which allows a person to regain muscle strength more quickly after taking a prolonged break from training. This is thought to happen due to the fact that, through training, we gain additional muscle fibre nuclei (myonuclei), which control muscle fibre activities on the cellular level. These additional myonuclei are not then lost in any subsequent periods of detraining when there is a loss of muscle mass. This relatively unexplored concept may provide more insight into the importance of training elite athletes from childhood.
Another advantage held by Olympians who start young, is more to do with the mental side of training. Training from a young age can help the athlete develop their mental endurance and gain memorable experience in their sport to fall back on when it matters. In this way, it has been argued that the best way to develop a child into an elite athlete is to encourage them to play multiple sports(7), training different muscle groups and coordination skills. This means that when they do commit to their chosen sport (or they might say, when their sport chooses them), they have a range of health and skill-related fitness to draw from, and this background provides them with the ability to bring novelty and creativity to their sport, enabling them to excel in ways that others don’t or can’t.
Although all this evidence highlights the power of starting young, not all hope is lost for the older budding Victor and Victrix ludorums. There are certain sports that tend to involve teams of older people, or athletes who have not needed to train their skill since childhood as a prerequisite for becoming Olympic standard. Bobsledding, is a great example of this, as many people aren’t introduced to the sport until later in life, and may not start training until their 20s. Meanwhile, Olympians in their 40s, 50s and 60s are often seen competing in equestrian sports, archery, shooting, and even curling. This year’s Tokyo games should further prove that age is no barrier, with 55-year-old Ni Xialian competing in table tennis and 46-year-old gymnast Oksana Chusovitina(8) making her eighth Olympic appearance. The oldest ever known sporting Olympian is Oscar Swahn, who was a mighty 72 years and 281 days old when he competed in shooting at the 1920 Olympics. So, if you feel a bit like you’ve passed your best-before date, or still resent your parents for not sending you to that elite children’s bootcamp when they had the chance, then fear not, there’s still time to find your sporting niche; the long-lost Olympic hero may still be laying latent in your well-rested limbs.
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1. Tokyo Olympic Games 2020: Sky Brown is youngest Team GB athlete – CBBC Newsround
2. World Children’s Day: Seven of the youngest Olympians to star at the Games (olympics.com)
3. What Age Do Most Olympians Start Training? Many Are Children When They Begin Learning Their Sport (bustle.com)
4. How Young is “Too Young” to Start Training? (nih.gov)
5. Endurance exercise performance in Masters athletes: age‐associated changes and underlying physiological mechanisms – Tanaka – 2008 – The Journal of Physiology – Wiley Online Library
6. Muscle memory: virtues of your youth? (nih.gov)
7. What were Olympians doing at age 12? (admkids.com)
8. Tokyo 2020’s golden oldies could see a new oldest Olympian | South China Morning Post (scmp.com)