For gymnasts 16 not sweet

ALISON KORN -- For Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:49 AM ET

The Olympics are supposed to be about athletes showcasing their talents to go higher, faster, and stronger. For the sport of gymnastics, one might add: Younger, shorter, lighter.

But how much younger?

Starting in 1972, when Russian Olga Korbut won Olympic gold and wowed the crowd at age 17, younger 'pixie' gymnasts have outperformed their older rivals. In 1976, Nadia Comaneci set the standard for tiny excellence with her historic perfect 10 score -- at age 14.

Now we have the rising Canadian talent, Peng Peng Lee, who's turning 15 this summer, with skills that already challenge the world's best. The youngest member of the senior national team, she has a Pan Am Games bronze medal to her credit, but will be too young to compete at the Beijing Olympics this August -- because Olympic gymnasts must be 16 or older.

Depending on your perspective, this rule is either unfair or for the athletes' own good...

The rules weren't always like this. But after the 1996 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee raised the minimum age for Olympic gymnastics to protect younger athletes from the dangers of over-training during childhood.

Some of those dangers are described in the controversial 1996 book Pretty Girls in Little Boxes, which argued American gymnastics and figure skating have become sports performed by children who starve themselves to stay small.

"Starving shuts down the menstrual cycle and blocks the onset of puberty," author Joan Ryan wrote. 'The combination of smaller, younger girls with more difficult routines can result in eating disorders, weakened bones, stunted growth, serious injuries, and damaged psyches.'

Now to be fair, let's remember those observations came from a few Olympics ago and another country. The Canadian gymnasts I've seen look healthy and robust, though of course they do diligently monitor their weight.

Healthy or not, the point remains that the younger, shorter and lighter female gymnasts are, overall, capable of the most daring and awesome feats. So does keeping them out of the Olympics serve to shield them from the risks of their own ambition? Or does it just persuade them to keep themselves at a childlike size until they finally qualify for the Games?

Lee is 4-foot-7 and weighs about 75 pounds, and along with her hard work and talent, enjoys a size advantage over heavier athletes who are taller and slower.

But for athletes in her situation, I worry about how it will be possible to maintain such an optimal, high-performing physique for the next four years, while also growing up in a healthy way, until the London Olympics in 2012. It's a very personal question, and the answer will reveal itself over time.

Thinking back, we'll never know what would have become of Comaneci if she hadn't been allowed to compete at the 1976 Olympics because of her age. We know four years later she didn't manage those same scores?

Perhaps the London Olympics, four years from now, will offer us an answer.

CALLING ALL COACHES

The Coaches Association of Ontario is gearing up for the 2008 Ontario Coaches Conference to be held in Mississauga Feb. 22 to 24. With a theme of, 'Are you ready? Sustaining Excellence Beyond 2010,' workshops aim at preparing the province's coaches for a new era in Canadian sport.

Visit www.coachesontario.ca for more details and to register.

SLEDHEADS GET PLAY

The men of Canada's national sledge hockey team are being followed by Gabriel Films North for a feature documentary, Sledhead.

The one-hour version of the documentary is slated to air on CTV in fall 2008 with a longer version planned for film festivals around the world. Follow along with the progress of the documentary at www.gabrielfilmsnorth.com.


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