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Young Olympians: is there such a thing as too young?
Adam Gibson
Wednesday, June 27, 2012


The Olympics is the platform on which the world's greatest athletes can display their extraordinary skills honed by a lifetime of training, discipline and sheer will. But sometimes that "lifetime" can be a surprisingly short period, with some of the greatest Olympians being virtually children when they hit their highs.

The idea of taking on the world's best when just in your teens would be unthinkable for most, but some athletes have done just that. Whether it be the innocence of youth that allows them to blithely ignore the pressure, or the sheer physical energy they have at such an age, many athletes have beaten the world when most of their peer group are merely struggling to master schooling and peer pressure.

Related link:

In pics: The world's youngest Olympians

Think of the 15-year-old Australian swimmer Shane Gould who shattered both records and the dreams of her opponents in stunning performances at the 1972 Munich Games; think of the diminutive 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci scoring perfect 10s in gymnastics at the 1976 Montreal Games; think of Marjorie Gestring, the US diver who was just 13 when she won gold at the 1936 Berlin Games.

It begs the question — is there such a thing as too young for the Olympics? On the evidence of history, it would appear that a classic sporting cliché might well apply — "If you're good enough, you're old enough".

As Australian sports commentator Peter Colquhoun notes, in some sports what might appear as "too young" is actually an advantage in a physical sense. "Gymnastics and diving, for example, are sports where the physical demands of the discipline call for small, light physiques," says Colquhoun, who has covered the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Olympics.

"You see many competitors in their early teens in such sports as those simply because, as bodies develop, they get heavier and larger in frame, so they are less competitive in sports where such agility is required."

Aside from gymnastics, the other standout sport where younger competitors regularly do well is swimming. Two of the youngest competitors to win medals in the history of the games are Denmark's 12-year-old Inge Sørensen in the 200m breaststroke in the 1936 Berlin Games and Japan's Kusuo Kitamura, aged 14, in the 1500m freestyle at the1952 Helsinki Olympics.

As Colquhoun says, "What were you doing at age 12, 13 or 14? It's probably a fair bet that you weren't winning gold medals at the world's premier sport event."

"Swimmers hit their peak at an early age and it's the nature of the sport that, particularly so these days, you are really going to struggle to beat the field if you are getting into your later adulthood. It's harsh but true."

Bearing that in mind, Russian Olympic authorities recently announced they had selected a 15-year-old to compete in the pool in the London Games. Russia’s head swim coach Andrei Vorontsov said Maria Baklakova will be part of the women’s 4 x 200 metre relay team. Citing Shane Gould as an example, Vorontsov said Australia had a long tradition of fielding teenage swimmers and Russia wouldn't shy away from emulating that.

"It shouldn’t be the case that only the Australians have such young ones, but we should too. That’s how it should be, that happens periodically," he said. From an Australian point of view, Gould's performance in Munich, where at age 15 she won five individual medals, and Murray Rose's effort as a 17-year-old at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where he won three gold medals, remain standout achievements for young athletes.

But while Rose went on to compete at the Rome Olympics, winning gold, silver and bronze, Gould returned home to Australia and resumed her schooling at Turramurra High School in Sydney.

Always one to follow her own path, the enigmatic swimming legend then promptly retired from competitive swimming — at the ripe "old" age of 16.

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