High-pressure world of Olympics is no place to send a young child

When adults like Simone Biles and Irish taekwondo star Jack Woolley find the Olympics so traumatic, should we really be watching 12-year-old table tennis players and 13-year-old skateboarders in Tokyo, asks JOHN DOLAN
High-pressure world of Olympics is no place to send a young child

PRODIGY: Skateboarding gold medallist Momiji Nishiya, 13. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

I REALLY need to get a shift on if I’m to achieve my life goal of winning an Olympic gold medal.

Now, now, no need to scoff — I still have a few chances in me, even though I missed out on a place in Tokyo due to the fact I no longer play any sport (and indeed was barely proficient in any when I did play).

I am heartened by the fact ballroom dancing may be introduced at the Games in the near future, as it will surely only be a matter if time before marbles is included (unofficial school champ, St Peter’s RC School, three years in a row, 1977-1979).

I am heartened too by the fact I am still giving 14 years to the oldest competitor in this year’s Olympiad — Australian dressage rider Mary Hanna, who is 66, and a granny of three. Good onya, gal!

Indeed, the oldest medal winner at an Olympics, a shooter called Oscar Swahn, was pushing 65 when he won gold in 1912 in his home Games in Sweden, in the single shot running deer team (curb your ire, it wasn’t a real deer).

Swahn was pipped to another medal in 1912 by his son (ouch!), and went on to be the oldest ever Olympics competitor, at 72. That’s some swan song, Mr Swahn.

So, time is on my side. And age is no barrier when it comes to the Olympics, if you’re good enough.

However, the question after the first week of the Tokyo is surely: Can you be too young to take part? Is it morally and ethically right for children to be thrown into the pressure bowl of Olympic competition? I would contend not.

Many pundits hailed the fact two of the feelgood stories of the Games revolved around children.

A 13-year-old Japanese girl, Momiji Nishiya, won gold in the women’s street skateboarding competition, pipping another 13-year-old, Brazilian Rayssa Leal.

The bronze medallist, another Japanese girl, Funa Nakayama, must have felt like an elder stateswoman at 16, having being whupped by two girls from three grades below her in high school.

Then there was the remarkable story of Hend Zaza, a 12-year-old from war-torn Syria, who qualified for the women’s table tennis tournament in Tokyo. This young lady is not allowed to see a Marvel film in the cinema, yet is deemed old enough to compete against adults in the goldfish bowl glare of the world’s media.

Syrian Hend Zaza, aged 12, at the Olympics in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Syrian Hend Zaza, aged 12, at the Olympics in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

These prodigies were held up as role models and superstars — but was I the only one to feel distinctly uncomfortable as they were feted, then cried tears of joy and despair, for our entertainment?

There is no universal minimum age set by the International Olympic Committee, but some sports have limits. Gymnasts, for example, must be 16 to compete, and boxers 18. Skateboarding and table tennis authorities are clearly less stringent, although these sports can also exact a toll on participants physically and mentally.

Bombette Martin, a 14-year-old skateboarder competing for Great Britain, suffered a dreadful fall just over a year ago, head first from a 4.5m ramp, resulting in multiple fractures to her skull, a broken left arm and hand, plus lacerations to her lungs.

“I was knocked out. Apparently, when I woke up, I didn’t know who I was,” she said.

But the rewards can be huge. Sky Brown, another skateboarder with Team GB, has struck a deal with Nike and appeared in ads with Serena Williams. She is 13.

There is little society can do to stop some sports producing such prodigies, but surely at an Olympics — the greatest show on earth and a stage for global sport — the authorities can take a stand and say: Adults only, thank-you.

Surely there is an argument for introducing a minimum age of 16 across the board, for all events.

The pressures of competing in an Olympics can be too much even for fully grown and mentally strong adults — witness the implosion of gymnast Simone Biles this week, and the traumatic reaction to defeat by Dublin taekwondo ace Jack Woolley. They are in their twenties, so how on earth does a 13-year-old process defeat?

It was instructive that skateboard gold medallist Nishiya used the phrase “stressed out” when stumbling and missing key landings in Tokyo. More worryingly, her teenage Japanese team-mate, Aori Nishimura, found her status as favourite too hard to shoulder, and repeatedly stumbled in the finals, coming last. Her father told reporters she had hurt herself the day before during practice and was in a wheelchair the night before she performed.

This is concerning stuff when it’s adults involved, never mind putting kids through the mill.

It was only a few short weeks ago when England soccer boss Gareth Southgate was being lambasted for asking a 19-year-old to take a penalty in the final of Euro 2020. From Roy Keane to Kevin Kilbane, pundits lined up to vilify his decision to throw a teenager into such a high pressure situation. But soccer players are comparatively well protected and nurtured by their sport’s authorities, trained in psychology and how to handle the media.

There is a salutary lesson involving kids and sport from the world of female gymnastics.

Until the 1970s, its champions tended to be adults.

Hungarian Ágnes Keleti won gold at 35 as one of the stand-out stars at the 1956 Olympics. As testament to her ongoing health and fitness, she turned 100 this year.

Larisa Latynina, the first great Soviet gymnast, became the 1958 world champion aged 23, while four months pregnant.

However, in the 1970s the average age of Olympic gymnasts plummeted and teenagers became the norm. The charge was led from behind the Iron Curtain.

In the 1972 Games, 17-year-old Olga Korbut wowed the world, winning four golds. She was so slight she was nicknamed the ‘Sparrow from Minsk’, and barely managed to make the Olympics because of training injuries.

Four years later, she was on the scrap-heap at 21, usurped by an 18-year-old from the Soviet Union, Nellie Kim, and a 14-year-old Romanian, Nadia Comaneci.

Their enthralling rivalry at the 1976 Olympiad in Montreal was the first Games I can remember, with both being the first to be awarded perfect scores of 10.0. However, their ages raised concerns, initially about the physical impact of such training regimes on young, developing bodies.

A U.S study concluded that gymnastics was the most dangerous sport for girls, and the International Gymnastics Federation said such intense physical activity can even affect the functioning of growth hormones.

These were just the physical issues. Taking part in elite sports is mentally and emotionally demanding for even the most level-headed child, and there were also fears that young gymnasts could be pressured to perform by coaches and parents.

Gymnastics decided to raise its minimum age at Olympics to 16.

Sport is littered with examples of prodigies whose flames burned too brightly too soon. Some, like golfer Tiger Woods, went on to dominate their sport, only to unravel when personality flaws from a lifetime chasing success came to the surface.

Others, like tennis ace Jennifer Capriati, crashed and burned far quicker. At 14 she was in the world top 10 and went on to win Slams and Olympic gold. By 18 she was burned out, checked into rehab, and went on to struggle with drugs, depression and her mental health.

We need look no further than the flag-bearer for the host nation at the Olympics for a cautionary tale of how dangerous life in the sporting public eye can be.

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open this year citing mental health problems. Her very public statements have been praised for raising awareness of mental health issues, but they also provide an uncomfortable insight into the demands placed on sporting figures at very tender ages.

Ireland’s youngest competitor in Tokyo is 19-year-old hockey player Sarah McAuley, who said of her call-up: “I definitely didn’t expect it to come so soon.”

Wise words. But how soon is too soon? Is 13 too soon?

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