The Bodies of Champion Gymnasts

by Andrew Mooney

Four feet, eleven inches, and 90 pounds is hardly the prototypical physique of a world-class athlete, but as American gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas proved yesterday, it’s more than enough to perform extraordinary feats on one of sport’s biggest stages: the women’s gymnastics individual all-around. Of course, the sight of pixie-sized girls tumbling and flying through the air is the norm for Olympic gymnastics; while a 4’8” girl might draw a few sidelong glances at the mall, there’s nothing peculiar about her when she’s on the mat.

Gabby Douglas

Today, atypical body types are expected of female gymnasts, but that wasn’t always the case—in fact, no competitor under five feet medaled in the women’s individual all-around until Maxi Gnauck in 1980. How have the best gymnasts’ bodies evolved through the years? I examined the heights, weights, and ages of all medal winners in the individual all-around since 1956 to find if any notable changes have occurred in the last half-century.

(Note: I was unable to find height and weight figures for three gymnasts over this time period: 1992 gold medalist Tatiana Gutsu, 1992 and 1996 bronze medalist Lavinia Miloşovici, and 1956 silver medalist Ágnes Keleti).

gymnasts2.png

The chart illustrates that champion gymnasts’ heights have remained relatively constant over the last sixty years—78 percent are within three inches of five feet tall. Their weights have been subject to a little more fluctuation as time has advanced, however. The data suggests a downward trend from an average of about 120 pounds in the 1950’s and 1960’s to well under 100 pounds in the modern gymnastics world.

The age of world-class gymnasts is often as mind-boggling as the twists and turns they execute on the floor. One can only marvel at the mental fortitude of a 16-year-old, most of whose peers would fold under the pressure of a speech class performance, exhibiting their talents in her sport’s most intense microscope, before an audience of millions.

Though controversy has surrounded the participation of early teen performers in the Olympics, most recently with the Chinese team in 2008, they are not a new phenomenon. Nadia Comeneci, the first champion gymnast under 100 pounds, is most well-known for her series of perfect 10.00 scores in the 1976 Montreal Games, but under today’s rules, she wouldn’t even have been allowed to compete, as her gold in the all-around came at the age of 14.

Older gymnasts are relics of the past. Only four gymnasts over the age of 19 have won medals in the individual all-around since 1976, and stardom in the sport is becoming increasingly fleeting. Shawn Johnson, the silver medalist in Beijing, chose to retire at 20 years old rather than attempt to compete in London, and Nastia Liukin, who won the gold in ’08, failed to even qualify for the Olympic team.

According to this analysis, the average medal-winning gymnast in the all-around is 19.6 years old, measures 5’1” and weighs 103 pounds. This puts them in about the tenth percentile for height and fifth percentile for weight among girls, based on statistics from the CDC. But as anyone who has watched these girls perform can attest, there are multiple connotations of the word “exception.”

This post can also be seen on Boston.com here.

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