Getting older is an inescapable part of life, just like taxes or going to the DMV. In some circles, like academia and business, aging is viewed as a great thing and shows you have put in the time to get where you are. In other circles, particularly in athletics (and, ok, competitive spelling bees), it is usually detrimental after a certain point. I mean, yes, it is usually great for a rookie quarterback to be a few years removed from their teenage blunders before you hand them the keys to the franchise–but not by much.
There is a sweet spot for each sport, one age that is the perfect balance of athletic ability, unrelenting drive, and real experience. It may be the peak for some people or, for others, the age that they begin to dominate the pack. But how much does that vary between sports? For example, Bryce Harper has been dominating pitchers since he entered the league just a few years ago. In comparison, our hometown hero and All-Star Game MVP, Eric Hosmer, took a few more years to turn into the force he is now. Would you be surprised to hear that they are both under 26? I know I was when I finally took a look. The same comparison can be made about LeBron and Steph Curry in the NBA, but they are moving in the other direction age-wise.
With the Olympics coming up in a few weeks, we decided to take a closer look at the upward and downward trends in athletes’ ages, depending on the sport. Will these trends continue in the 2016 Games? In fact, Michael Phelps is returning for his 5th Olympic Games at age 31, so we knew there has to be something to it. And in another equally grueling sport, we were shocked to find out that Usain Bolt was actually 29. To be honest, if I had to guess, I would have pegged him at no older than 24!
But it’s not just that athletes are getting older; there is a whole shakeup in the age dynamics at the Olympic Games. We were interested in if these trends would continue into 2016, so we took a dive into the Olympic archives like we were Indiana Jones to find the truth. In Part One of this article, we will look at the age trends of Olympic champions and in Part Two, we will explain why they are trending in each direction. Below is a summary of our findings, but be sure to read the entire article to see how we got there:
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We looked at two of the most popular sports at the Olympics that test different parts of the human physique and mentality: Track & Field and Gymnastics. With so many events in each of those broad sports we also felt confident that we would have a great cross section of different athletic abilities and ages.
Additionally, because plotting and recording every single participants in those events across the 100+ year history would be a nightmare, we focused on only the medal winners. This also made sure we got the best athletes ages and not just a random sample of participants. For those interested, we used a combination of the official Olympic Games site and the Olympic Database, then filled in the gaps with Wikipedia.
After compiling nearly 5.5k individual athlete’s ages, home country, gender, sport, and medal, we were ready to get to work. And by work I mean feeling awful about our physical fitness when 30+-year-olds are still winning gold medals.
Part One: Data Analysis
First, it’s important that everyone understands that these age trends only include the medalist age. Now on to the data.
In the first official modern Olympiad in 1896, the average age for athletes was 23 years of age. This increased to 25+ years of age in 2012. The median age in 1896 was one year younger, at 22, but the median age in 2012 held steady at 25. This means that in the last one hundred and twenty years, the average age of all the athletes we studied has increased by two to three years.
As you can see above, during the first 60 or so years of the Games, the average age for athletes was above our sample average. In fact, it was above the average for nine out of the first 16 Olympics, but that trend would not continue for long.
In the last 25 years, we have seen the age for our studied athletes increase almost every year, except for a slight dip in 2004. We believe that upward trend will continue to increase, with most Olympic athletes being closer to 30 than 20 at the next few Olympic Games. With some outside of the extremely rigorous events competing for their entire sporting lives.
Track & Field
The Olympic Committee also calls Track & Field “Athletics,” but the event is still the same; either run the fastest, jump the highest or throw the farthest. But remember, this data only includes athletes at the top of their game, better known as the “medalists.”
First, we will look at all the Track & Field athletes from 1892 to 2012. We will also look at the change in age based on length and type of events. The average age for those 3500 Track & Field athletes was found to be exactly 25 years of age, placing those athletes at almost 1.5 years older than the study average. The graph below shows the average ages of all Track & Field athletes.
As you can see immediately and even without the trendline, ages are trending upwards. This was not at all what we expected when we started the study. We actually thought that the average ages for Track & Field athletes were going to be a lot lower, especially over the past 20 years. Especially with the increase in technology and training knowledge.
In the first few Olympiads, the average age for Track & Field athletes hovered around 22 to 23. Since then, it has been on an upward incline, peaking at 27 in 2000 and finally settle at 26.5 in 2012. And although the average age for these athletes were higher than the study average, it followed some of the same patterns. For example, average ages held steady from 1968-1980 before a pretty significant increase leading up to 2012.
Overall, there was a significant increase of more than four years in the average age of those athletes. If there was an increase of only one or two years over that same span, it could be easily written off, but not so with an increase this significant. Especially in such high-impact activities like the sprints and hurdles. We will get deeper into the reasons for this increase in age in Part Two of this article.
To take a deeper look into the age trends, Track & Field events were segmented into four categories: the running events were broken down into Short (less than 400m), Medium (400m-3000m), and Long (3000m+). Field events were all put into one category. We also estimated what the average age of the athletes would be in Rio for 2016.
The trend lines of each of those four categories can be seen below in the graph. (Note: The odd bumps you are seeing in the years between 1912 – 1920 and 1936 – 1948 are because there were no Olympics during the World Wars.)
The Short distance athletes had the most dramatic increase in age. In the early 1900s, they were all around 22 years of age but by the 1980s, they were all over 24. Now, in 2016, we estimate they will be close to 26 years of age. The Field athletes had almost the exact same upward trend, but started and ended a year older. We were not surprised by this at all; studies have shown that field events damage the body a lot less. This leads us to predict that the average age of Field athletes in 2016 will be a bit over 27.
The Medium distance runners took a less dramatic path, only increasing by three years over the study. But, based on these trends, we predict they will continue to increase to a bit over 26 in 2016.
Long distance runners were the oldest and have always been the oldest. They peaked in 1928 at 31 years of age and have been declining since then, with 27 being the average age for the past 20 years. That early peak and the steady ages in the recent past are why the trendline is so incredibly flat. We predict that the athletes age will hold steady at 27 in 2016.
If you are interested in the exact average ages for each type of event, those can be seen below.
The decrease in age can be seen more clearly for the long distance events, as well as the increase for the other types of events. All events eventually settled in the 27 years-range for their athletes, with the exception of Medium distance events.
It’s no secret that gymnasts across the board and country are getting younger, but we were not aware of the magnitude.
Although they have an average age of 23.4, which is almost the same as the full study average, that was mainly boosted in the first half of the century. For instance, the average age of gymnasts before the 1960s was above 26 years of age, bringing the average age up significantly. But that trend was about to be busted in a big way in just a few years. During the latter half of the 1960s, we first see the downward trend starting at 23 years of age and continuing until it hits rock bottom at 18 years of age in 1992.
After that low point in 1992, the average age settled in at around 21 years of age for the next 20 years. We predict that trend will continue into 2016, with the average gymnast being closer to 20 years of age (unless there is a massive influx of barely age-appropriate gymnasts in Rio like there was for the United States in 2012–but from what we have seen so far, that is not going to be the case).
To put the age of these young athletes into context: that is a someone who is two years out of high school competing on the world stage for their county. And even back in the early 90s, that was someone who was most likely still in high school! If anyone was wondering, the absolute minimum age for gymnasts to compete in the Olympics is 16 years of age. It used to be lower but the governing body changed it after they saw that the increase in competition and physical demands took a toll on younger bodies.
Because gymnastic events did not split as easily into other categories like the Track & Field events, we decided to break it down by gender. We looked at the 1952 Olympics and onward because women were not able to compete in Gymnastics prior to 1952.
The results are very interesting, to say the least. Male gymnasts have been well above the average age trendline since 1952. It almost mirrors the average age trendline in slope for the entire graph, starting with an average age of close to 27 and finally settling at the predicted age of about 22 years of age for 2016.
On the other hand, the trendline for female gymnasts takes a more serious and maybe even controversial downward push. Starting at the almost the exact same age as the combined trendline of 24.4 years, their trending ages drop almost nine years before finally settling on a projected average of about 16 years of age in 2016.
Honestly, I believe that this is the one prediction we may get wrong. The data available is not as complete as we hoped it would be for female gymnasts. That being said, we can look at the actual average ages of each gender and it will show exactly why that prediction is so low.
In the graph above you can see that the prediction would have been spot-on from about 1976 to 1996. After sticking very closely to the average age for men until 1964, the average age for female athletes experienced a massive drop of almost five years between only one Olympiad. Those large drops in age would continue on for the next few Games until it became commonplace to see high school-aged athletes competing.
Since 1992, however, the average age has been on the rise. Still, athletes have been averaging at 19 years or below since 2000; and it has actually been a bit under 19 since 1978, with many closer to 17 years of age.
Starting in 1952 there have been about 160 gymnasts that are under the age of 18, which makes up a little over a fourth of all athletes.
Track & Field VS. Gymnastics
Just to show the opposite trends in age that both of the disciplines are taking, we created the graph below. What we found most interesting was that both types of events cross at almost the same spot in 1952, and only grew farther apart from there.
After taking enough time to adequately absorb those trends, you’re probably asking yourself: so why are the ages of athletes changing? Don’t worry, in Part Two we will explain some of the potential reasons!
Part Two: Potential Causes
After finding out that both of the events that we chose to research were moving in opposite directions, we were determined to find out why. We knew that there were probably many intersecting factors moving the ages upwards or downwards but we are only going to focus on a few plausible ones.
The Training Process
Let’s start this section with Gymnastics, because there are literally hundreds of articles on this topic. Additionally, we are going to stick to United States team for the examples below because of the availability of information.
Most experts recommend that gymnasts start their training between the ages of four and six. Let that sink in for a little bit: these kids are starting to train to be Olympic hopefuls before they even enter the school system. What makes that even more shocking is that the kids are most likely not the ones that choose to start training that early. Are the parents vicariously living through their children? Possibly.
Granted, that early training may be more fun than serious for the young gymnasts. But once the girls turn seven, they can try out to become part of TOPs, a development program put on by the United States gymnastics team. And the boys can be part of the Future Stars program, but that is delayed until they are at least eight years of age. Both genders can start competing at the Junior Olympics from age five and onward.
If these future Olympians are training 30 hours per week, which is what many experts recommended, they will reach 10,000 hours of practice well before they can even drive. They become, as Malcolm Gladwell calls it, world-class in about six years, with many doubling that hour count before they even compete at around age 16.
And this is a major reason why we have seen the gymnasts average age plummet: they are just starting a heck of a lot earlier than any other sport.
We also took a look at Olympic swimmers and found they are following almost the same trends as Track & Field. This chart from USA Swimming illustrates perfectly at what age many swimmers are starting to get into the sport.
Most competitive swimmers start their familiarization with the pool around six years of age, but it in a very laid back and fun environment. Athletic training does not start until age 11 and most high-performance competition does not even start until well into, or even after, high school. Which confirms our findings the average age of Olympic swimmers has been around 22-23 for the past few Games.
When we look at Track & Field athletes, a key part of the age game, when compared to the gymnasts, is that they are starting training and competing much later. The earliest an athlete can compete at United States Track & Field sanctioned events is after they turn eight. Or three years later than the gymnasts and around the same age as the swimmers mentioned above.
Another thing that sets those Track & Field athletes apart is that a lot did not set out to become Olympic hopefuls from birth. Many great champions played other sports, refining their speed and building strength. Only after realizing their gifts later in life, around 14-18 or even after college, did they actually start training like Olympians.
Metaphorically, they could have put in their 10,000 hours in one of the “adjacent” sports. While not all of those hours are going to become a world class Track & Field athlete, they help immensely. Now instead of starting from square one, they are already in some cases more than halfway there. Therefore shortening their training time to only a few years, unlike some gymnast who train their entire life.
For example, a football receiver would be a speedy sprinter, a defensive lineman or tight end would be a strong thrower and a basketball player would excel in the high jump. This approach was found to be just as fruitful for elite athletes as starting them out extremely early in life.
That said, many still take the traditional path through high school and college before they compete against the world. With most graduating college seniors being around 22 to 23 years of age, our sample average of 25 does not seem that far off.
When we compare these sports, it seems that the common general vs. specialized argument applies. Gymnastics and, to a lesser degree, Swimming require very specialized training for many years. But when we look at the Track & Field athletes, they can cut off a lot of training time by being a great all around athlete in another sport requiring similar abilities.
“Olympic Athlete” Is Now A Job
For the first hundred years of the Olympics, the athletes were the best in their categories and mostly did it for the love of the game. They were students, teachers, businessmen, adventurers and the like, competing to see who was the best. Every four years they would take a summer vacation to become champions.
That atmosphere of amateur competition in the Olympics started to unravel in the 1960s and 1970s with state sponsored programs cropping up in the Eastern bloc countries (think Ivan Drago in Rocky IV). And then, in 1972, with the retirement of Avery Brundage as the head of the International Olympic Committee, who was a stringent believer in amateurism, the Games shifted. Beginning in 1978, US athletes could receive outside payments to fund their training and lifestyle.
Now, after 30 years of professionals taking over, the idea of being an Olympic Athlete (or, at least, an international athlete) is a viable career path. The ability to get sponsorships from corporate partners, support from their respective government, and the ability to compete for prize money could be very attractive for some athletes. Attractive enough to put off their other professional goals for a few years to chase that dream–pushing the average age up for track athletes up in the process.
Even though Athlete is, for most, technically a full-time job, many are still not making full-time wages. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt may come to mind when we start talking about sponsorships and living the good life. But they are the exception to the rule. In fact, most Track & Field athletes earn less than $15k a year for their efforts. That’s why some of them participate in the USOC Program, which allows them to work part-time and also train in an official capacity with their team. There are similar official programs like this in other countries to help them train as long as they are competitive. Many, like USA Swimming, give their athletes monthly stipends to live and train on.
And this could also be what is pushing the age of gymnasts down so quickly. For example, a friend of mine was an incredible gymnast that took the early training route and actually adjusted their schooling so they could train. They were putting in the 30+ hours most coaches recommended and, as a result, probably missed out on a lot of their childhood. That is what it means to put a large part of your life on hold to become an Olympic hopeful.
Now, instead of training to become teachers or doctors, kids are training to become Olympic athletes, with the same level of determination and dedication to the craft. The increase in Olympic hopefuls leads into to the next potential cause.
The first Olympiad in 1896 fielded 241 participants across only 14 countries. Now, in 2016, they are predicting there will be around 10.5k athletes from 207 countries. That is a 4257% increase in the number of participants and 1379% increase in the number of countries invited.
Granted, there are now over 300 events that will take place at Rio in 2016, compared to only 43 in 1896. Additionally, the number of events stayed under 200 until the 1980 Games in Moscow that had 203. It makes sense that more events leads to more participants, and that’s why we dug a little deeper.
We found that there are now, on average, 35 athletes competing in each event, which has been steady for the last 20 years. That count has tripled since the early 1900s and has added about five athletes per event since the 1950s.
What does this mean for the change in age for both Track & Field athletes and gymnasts? It means that the metaphorical 10,000 hours that each athlete was putting in before to become elite is not going to cut it anymore. There are now 30 other people killing themselves in the weight room, in the gym or on the track every day to reach Olympic greatness.
What’s more, that greatness is getting even more refined and hard to reach each year. To illustrate this, we looked at the 100m sprints time of each of the male gold medalists. In 1896, it was a full 12 seconds, 10.5 seconds in 1956, and 10.25 in 1980. Incredibly, in the 2012 finals, not a single uninjured sprinter posted a time over 10 seconds. Usain Bolt actually set an Olympic Record with a blazing 9.63 seconds. I can’t even respond to an email in under 10 seconds and he is running 100 meters.
That was not the only record to fall in 2012, there were actually 52 records broken or one in six of all events.
And that count of participants at the Olympic Games does not include elite athletes who did NOT even qualify for the games . Which a conservative estimate puts those numbers in the many tens of thousands. So what we are trying to say is to be Olympic level great is becoming more difficult with each passing year.
Politics & Outside Events
As we have seen in the past few months, political maneuvering and outside forces can significantly affect which and how many athletes compete. There are also outside forces that can contribute to the age trends, which we will cover below. Let’s look at the average age of olympic athletes again:
The peak of that trend was an average age of 25.4 in 1952, after a few years of decline in age at the Helsinki Games in Finland. The athletes we studied were almost two years older than the ones competing at the last Olympic Games. This increase in average age can be blamed on two very large factors: the aftermath and complications of World War II and the return of the German and Japanese teams to the Games.
Another noteworthy event was in 1967 the International Olympic Committee banned performance-enhancing drugs. We are not sure how much this ban caused older athletes to stop competing but the drop was significant enough to highlight, and it seemed to show enough of a causal correlation as to draw everyone’s attention. In the four Olympic Games following 1967, the age of athletes actually decreased from about 24 years of age before the ban to 22 years of age in 1980.
That lowest average age point can be explained pretty well: in 1980, the US boycotted the Olympics Games in Moscow. With the United States taking 26% of all medals we studied, their omission in 1980 could give some of the younger international athletes their time to shine. Also, there were 65 countries that were invited that did not compete in response to the boycott. So the field of athletes at the Games in 1980 was less than stellar or complete.
But in 1984, when most of the countries returned to the Games in Los Angeles, we saw our first glimpse of athletes’ ages increasing to the average today. Additionally, 1984 was the last year that only amateur athletes were allowed to compete; by 1988 there were professionals competing as well.
After looking at the past 100+ years of Olympic greatness, we were amazed at how much has changed. There are teenage gymnasts winning gold medals and dads taking home sprinting titles. What really excites us is what the next 100 years are going to be like. Because if the past is any indication, there are going to be some major shakeups in every sport.
Will Track & Field athletes be well into their 30s by then, or will it start to trend in the opposite direction? On the other hand, will we better understand the toll that gymnastics takes on young people? No one really knows at this point in time. And with technology moving faster than some of these sprinters it could be a whole different kind of Olympics by then.
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The infographic in this article was created by Steve Shearer.