History? At least. At the Tokyo Games, Vanessa Ferrari slipped onto an Olympic podium at the age when most gymnasts have already been enjoying a well-deserved retirement for years. The Italian won the silver medal on floor at the age of 30.
Loop almost complete for the Transalpine, who landed with fanfare on the apparatus in her first year as a senior: world champion in the all-around in 2006. Fifteen years later, she was therefore still there for her fourth Games, a sequence that they are not besides, only four athletes have succeeded in the discipline.
Forget the twirling dolls
Age, the eternal question that agitates the debates around the platforms. The image of twirling dolls has endured since the exploits in Montreal in 1976 of Romanian Nadia Comaneci, a 14-year-old princess at the height of her art. However, the gymnastics authorities have raised the age of participation in international competitions to 15 years in the 1980s, and to 16 years since 1997. This is not enough to close the subject.
In 2008, suspicions fell on the real age of the Chinese champions in Beijing, before the International Gymnastics Federation cleared them. Two years later, the International Olympic Committee withdrew from these same Chinese women the team bronze of the 2004 Athens Games where they had illegally enrolled a 14-year-old athlete.
“It all comes down to injury management”
Does this limit to those over 16 really change the situation and does it not also reduce the duration of careers? Émilie Le Pennec, the only tricolor Olympic champion, on the uneven bars in 2004 at the age of 16 and a half, often tells how much her body had changed two years later, generating repeated injuries and stopping her practice at the end of 2007 before his twentieth birthday.
“However, at 20, we often have more reasons to be more efficient, with better control of movements through repetition, stress through experience, etc., analyzes Pierre Billard, the doctor of the French women’s team. Even up to the age of 25, one is not confronted with a physiological decline. Everything is therefore played on the management of injuries, inevitable in a career as a gymnast. »
A more diversified gymnastics
For the doctor, the 16-year rule is certainly not to be reviewed. “Without it, we would have continued to witness a race at the earliest possible start, with heavy training loads from the age of 10, humanly indefensible”, he insists. “In terms of gym technique, we also saw a certain standardization among 14-year-old girls, the impression of witnessing the evolution of robots, emphasizes the former champion Isabelle Severino. In the 2000s, the physique gradually diversified, and today this gives very beautiful gymnastics with more marked styles, more assertive characters, more diverse exercises. »
Isabelle Severino, who had two phases in her career interspersed with a long break, also knows the importance of maturity to fight against certain sometimes excessive demands. “After 20 years, you can also assert yourself more also in front of coaches, impose fewer hours and more quality, and then savor successes differently, without being caught in a perpetual washing machine, she continues. Advances in materials also help to last longer: landing mats, vaulting tables and others have evolved a lot in recent years. »
A rising middle age
If a number of champions still make a small turn and then leave, the average age of the gymnasts, gradually, goes up without stopping. In Tokyo last year, it exceeded 20 years for the first time since 1964 (21 years and 11 months) among the participants. Also for the first time, on the podiums of the individual competitions, the over 20s were in the majority (10 out of 16).
In 2008 in Beijing, only one of the 15 winners was over 20 years old. In silver on horseback at 33, the UFO Oksana Chusovitina gleaned the last Olympic medal of a career that she only completed in Tokyo in 2021. At 46 years old. Inspiring?