By ASHLEY RAJ, freshman (Originally published April 2022)
ATHLETES SPEND HOURS, months, and years preparing for one of the most anticipated events of their life: the infamous Olympics. Athletes from ages 16 to 47 compete in this event in the hopes of taking home gold for their country. The Olympics are particularly stressful for younger athletes, who devote hours of practice towards the chance of winning. The pressure that is put on these young athletes is immense, which can prove to be detrimental to their mental health. By implementing an age limit on Olympic participation, teenage athletes can grow to make mature decisions for themselves, rather than follow the whims of their parents or coaches, and focus on their growth, childhood, and mental health rather than stress over their performance.
The inclusion of an age limit can protect teen athletes from the motive to take performance-enhancing drugs because of the pressure they face from the adults in their lives that instill in them that it is crucial to do whatever possible to win. An example of this external pressure is evident in the doping scandal that surfaced during the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Kamila Valieva became one of the most popular Olympic athletes during the 2022 Winter Olympic games, but not for her performance in the figure skating event. The 15-year-old Russian figure skater was accused of doping, and it was revealed that Valieva had taken three different substances, one of which is banned. The combination of these substances had raised many questions, and officials like U.S. anti-doping chief Travis Tygart stated, “clearly somebody has taught her or coached her, directed her, to use these substances,” suggesting that her doping was systematic, and possibly forced upon her
by older role models. The pressure to take performance-enhancing drugs can form in unhealthy training environments, which can also increase an individual’s mental and emotional pressure. After her training, Valieva told Russia’s Channel One, “These (past few) days have been very difficult for me. It’s as if I don’t have any emotions left.” The pressure that these athletes face can be excruciating and can leave a lasting imprint on an athlete’s mental health.
Severe pressure from coaches can leave a negative impact on athletes, especially considering that at younger ages, athletes depend on their coaches to lead them to “success.” This doping scandal has also put the spotlight on Valieva’s coach, Eteri Tutberidza, who is known for her brutal training routines with no regard for the skaters’ mental well-being. Many figure skaters have said that when they were minors, they felt an obligation to their coach’s intense training methods. U.S. skater Karen Chen, now 22, describes this feeling, “I didn’t have doubts. I don’t know if robot is the right word, but my coaches would tell me to go do something and I’d do it.” This “robotic” feeling that Chen describes can restrict a teen’s ability to make the right decisions based on their personal comfort zones and subjects them to the decision making skills of their coaches and other adults. With the addition of a strict age limit, minor athletes will have the room they need to develop mentally and physically, which can also even out Olympic competition. Natasha McKay, a 27-year-old figure skater, implied that an age limit would provide a level playing field, as “bodies would be more developed and there’d be less injury.” McKay stated that after her teenage years, she was able to make better mental progress based on her commitment towards figure skating.
The teenage years are important to one’s mental and physical well-being and can allow passionate participants the opportunity to be on par with older, more experienced competitors.
Despite the advantages of including a minimum age limit, objectors of the age limit claim that a minimum age limit would keep talented athletes from the Olympics. However, interested young athletes like figure-skater Alysa Liu say that they would be more than willing to participate at a later point in their lives. If an age limit were to be put in place for the 2022 Beijing Olympics, figure-skater Alysa Liu expresses, “I’d just be like, ‘OK, I just have to wait a little bit longer.’ Which is fine. I’ve trained so long, might as well just do a little bit longer.” An age minimum for the Olympics can revise training programs and keep Olympic athletes beyond their teenage years. With the minimum age limit, young athletes are provided with the time to make their decisions on whether or not they choose to participate, at older ages, they would be able to make more educated decisions. Moreover, older athletes are more likely to be more experienced; along with talent and interest, opponents to the Olympic age limit must consider that such a rule would allow athletes more time to train, practice, and hone their skill in their field.
Mental health has been an important topic for all athletes when preparing for an important athletic event. 24-year-old gymnast Simone Biles decided to withdraw from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and stated that she needed to focus on her own mental health. Biles said to The Associated Press that “we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.” Biles shouldered a vast amount of pressure as the face of the
U.S Olympic team, carrying the expectations of her athletic dominance and success at just 24 years old. Mental health is important especially for minor athletes, as protecting one’s mental health can have long-term positive effects for both the individual and those associated with said individual who have a vested interest in their success in events as prestigious as the Olympics.
Young athletes are the face of the Olympics, receiving gold medals and breaking records. However, the pressure that comes with this success can be emotionally painful and damaging, not to mention calamitous for their growth as individuals. The idea that children as young as 10 years old have participated in the Olympics only solidifies the idea that, in creating future “amazing,” “astounding” Olympic athletes, society is breeding robots to participate in physical activity for its enjoyment. The burden and large amount of pressure that young Olympic athletes carry—the expectations of their country, of their parents, of their coaches, and of their peers—can in no way be good for their development as people and as future members of society. It should not be anyone’s intention to instill in young, impressionable children that it is acceptable for them to do things like take performance enhancing drugs to boost their chances of winning, or that it is acceptable for them to treat future generations of children with the same vigor that they were once treated with. It is paramount that young, talented athletes are not robbed of their childhoods, or of their basic principles as people.
The addition of a minimum age limit can prevent the overtraining, manipulation, and mental abuse these young athletes face. Putting minor athletes’ health at top priority can keep these stars healthy and successful beyond their teenage years.