When she arrives at Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Games, she will have turned 41 years old. For most Olympians, that’s old. For female gymnasts, that’s ancient.
Oksana Chusovitina was selected as a member of the Uzbekistan’s women’s gymnastics team. And while Chusovitina will be far more than twice the age of her teammates and competitors, she will also have infinitely more experience. The Rio Olympics will be her seventh Olympic Games. Not only has she competed in seven Olympic Games, she has done so, essentially, for three different teams:
- The Unified Team (participants from former USSR): 1992 Barcelona Games
- Uzbekistan: 1996 Atlanta Games, 2000 Sydney Games, 2004 Athens Games, 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games
- Germany: 2008 Beijing Games, 2012 London Games
Here is a basic fact. Since 1972, the all-around Olympic women’s gymnastics champions have been 20 years old or less, the majority of them being teenagers. There is a biological and evolutionary reason for this, according to a fascinating book I am currently reading on the science of athletic physiology, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by David Epstein. He writes that girls and boys physically mature at practically equal rates until the age of 10. Top running speeds, for example, are the same for 10-year-old boys and girls. But boys get a significant boost in athletic prowess from the start of puberty around the age of 14. Girls at the age of 14 tend to peak physically in some respects. For example Epstein explains that the average female runner is already approaching her fastest lifetime sprint speed by the age of fourteen.
Epstein also explains that female gymnasts need slim hips and low centers of gravity to perform swiftly and agilely at the international level. Unfortunately for aspiring female gymnasts, biology conspires against them.
Studies of Olympians show that an important trait of female athletes in certain sports is that they don’t develop the wide hips that many other women do. If elite female gymnasts go through a significant growth spurt in height or hips, their career at the top level is essentially over. As they increase in size faster than strength, the power-to-weight ratio that is so critical to aerial maneuvers goes in the wrong direction, as does their ability to rotate in the air. Female gymnasts are pronounced over the hill by twenty, whereas male gymnasts are still early in their careers.
In other words, Chusovitina is an outlier of significant proportions, an aging gymnast who has sustained the proper power-to-weight ratio while maintaining the training, the technique, the stamina and the mental strain to compete at an Olympic level.
She won a team gold medal in 1992, and a bronze medal in the individual vault competition in 2008. At the age of 41, can Chusovitina, still a top ten vaulter in the world, find Olympic glory one more time?