International Law of Olympics Age Minimums

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In the 2008 Olympic Games, the Chinese female gymnastics team came under some fire from the media for alleged competitors under the required age of 16.  At least 7 cases of underage gymnasts occurred throughout the 1980s and 90s.  Some coaches and experts maintain that age 15 can be the prime age for flexibility and ability in gymnastics.   

Gymnastics in the Olympic Games is governed by administrative bodies, organizations, and committees, chief of which is the International Olympic Committee (IOC).  The Olympic Charter is the codification of the principles, rules, and by-laws of the IOC.  The Charter does not specify any age requirements. 

Age minimums and limitations are set solely by federations governing the individual sports themselves, pursuant to safety standards and other considerations.  For example, bobsledding sets the minimum at 14, soccer has a maximum of 23, and boxing is 17-32.  The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), founded in 1881, set the minimum age in 1981 at 14, then 15, and finally 16 in 1997.  As an international body located in Switzerland (as is IOC), FIG is heavily influenced by international law issues such as human and child rights, trade and negotiations, and international arbitration. 

FIG is primarily responsible for checking and enforcing its own age minimum.  FIG receives the passports of the gymnasts from the gymnastics association of each country.  The Chinese Gymnastics Association, in turn, applied for athlete passports according to legal identification cards issued by local governments of the athlete’s province. 

If FIG finds inconsistent evidence amounting to fraud, it can impose disciplinary action by barring the country from competing in future events.  This is what happened to the North Korean Gymnastics Federation when it submitted data claiming a gymnast was a certain age for three consecutive years.  As is common in international law, politics and the media can play a major role in eventual action by governmental bodies – media can investigate and discover evidence of conflicting age documents. 

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Last Modified: 07-01-2013 03:59 PM PDT

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