Wednesday 20 January 2016

Celebrating Underage Superstars

There's something so impressive about watching a thrilling routine from the past and absorbing the fact that the gymnast wasn't even of age at the time. Personally, while I don't condone breaking the rules, I don't allow it to taint or spoil the enjoyment of the routine in any way as political decisions were and are nothing to do with the gymnast themselves. The below either admitted themselves or were categorically found through investigation to fall below the age limit at the time.

Lavinia Agache - Romania

Copyright - Tom Theobald

Lavinia competed at the age of 13 at worlds 1981, with her date of birth altered from 1968 to 1967. Interestingly, she also competed at the junior gymnastics championships in Japan the same year. She came into her own when she was actually a senior later that quad, but still managed to shine at such a young age, with super strong beam and floor routines in typical Romanian fashion. Not elegant, but very energetic and fun to watch with some nice original elements thrown in. Lavinia was somewhat overshadowed by teammate Ecaterina Szabo but was a great gymnast in her own right and was a solid contributor at worlds 1983 and the Olympics the following year.

Olga Bicherova - USSR


Olga is one of the better known underage gymnasts, having won the 1981 worlds AA with an altered date of birth. She had an abundance of the qualities that made Soviet gymnastics great, displaying fabulous extension, form and elegance - with a mature ease far beyond her years. A true all-arounder. Her win drew criticism thanks to her baby face, especially from the US who also mention Lavinia and others (unproven), but reserve the focus for the winner, of course. Olga competed through the rest of the quad and beyond successfully despite the killer depth, but was a victim of the Olympics boycott like so many others.

Kim Gwang Suk - North Korea

Kim is without doubt the youngest gymnast ever to compete at worlds. Her exact age when she emerged as a senior at 1989 worlds is not known, but she may have been as young as 9 or 10. 4'4, she unleashed the counter-Kim or Marinich, a ridiculously hard release and in combination that only a handful have competed. Her bar routine is one of my all-time favourites and she also had some quite nice work on beam. She competed through to 1992 Olympics as the reigning bars world champion and Detective FIG only managed to nab her when her federation submitted her as being 15 for 3 years in a row in the early 90's. Which is still mind boggling, at least put some effort into the swindle! Kim fell off the radar after a ban was imposed, which is tragic as she would definitely have had a good few years left had she hypothetically remained healthy.

Yang Yun - China

Copyright- AP/Amy Sancetta

Yang Yun, the beautifully classic performer, was a complete surprise when she admitted on state TV that she was 14 in Sydney as she always looked very mature and older than 16, certainly older than teammate and fellow underager Dong Fangxiao. Yang was a beauty to watch on all 4 events, even vault (watch this immediately) and was particularly stunning on beam also where she displayed fabulous originality with gorgeous lines and extension. Sadly she fell in the Sydney AA which she would have won otherwise (after Raducan's score was officially wiped) - although her admission of her age though dismissed by the FIG on investigation would have rendered that a controversial win also. Yang did manage to pick up bronze on bars but sadly disappeared off the scene nearly as quickly as she arrived onto it, the Olympics was her sole competition of note.

Olga Mostepanova - USSR

Copyright - Tom Theobald

Olga is IT as far as the personification of Soviet gymnastics is concerned - although sadly majorly lacking in the medals to prove it. One of the greats, who would have won all around her in LA 1984 Olympics (instead racking up perfect 10's at Olomouc), Olga was underage during the competitive season of 1983. An accomplished all-arounder, she was best known for her stunning beam, complete with that press handstand mount. Her extension stood out even amongst her teammates which is saying a lot. Of all of the gymnasts and other athletes screwed by the 1984 Olympics boycott, it seems like a particularly heinous crime in her case, especially as she peaked that year and wasn't quite the same at worlds the following year.

Gina Gogean - Romania

Gina is remembered for a few things- somewhat safe routines (although she was not always boring) and collecting quite the stack of medals during deep quads, but competing underage in 1992 is not one of them. Her super lengthy career started off on murky terms, being officially too young during the Barcelona Olympics. At this point of her career she was far from the star of her team.  Despite competing strongly at Euros that year, she failed to make much of an impact at the games. Not that she was long developing into a strong all-arounder with multiple titles under her belt with the sole exception of, big surprise, uneven bars. A big help in her super consistency during her senior career was the unfortunate killing off of more difficult and unusual elements she had as a junior. Being boring really paid off for her!

Alexandra Marinescu - Romania

Alexandra, after huge success as a junior, had the great misfortune to a) be hyped as the next Nadia Comaneci and b) to be pulled from the AA at Olympics and worlds, the only two big competitions she competed at, in favour of teammate Simona Amanar. To be individually picked out for hype when she had such giants of accomplished teammates as Gina Gogean, Simona Amanar and Lavinia Milosovici shows how promising she was. Lacking the powerhouse tumbling of the others, she stood out for her elegance instead, with beam being her best event. The fact that her career was so short, especially when they went to the effort of changing her age in the first place is a tragedy, as is the fact that her name was blackened when the reason given for her forced withdrawals from the AA was that she was a poor worker.

Dong Fangxiao - China

Dong was another gymnast who had overshadowing gymnasts on her team to compete alongside with, in this case the likes of Ling Jie and Liu Xuan and the less accomplished but outstanding Yang Yun and Kui Yuanyuan. Dong was more of a team player than a star in her own right, but was a good all-arounder and strong on floor. Her investigation stripped China of their 1999 and 2000 team medals.

Hong Su Jong - North Korea

Copyright - Thomas Schreyer

Hong Su Jong is the infamous gymnast whose age falsification earned North Korea such a lengthy ban that they missed the London Olympics. Before the federation ban, she also earned a suspension for the use of Furosemide (a diuretic used to aid weight loss/combat fluid retention...which is downright odd in those circumstances when I type about it all the time in the context of cardiac babies!). Controversy aside, Hong was an extremely talented vaulter for which she earned silver at 2007 worlds, but she was also awesome on bars. Her handstands would earn her quite the battering these days, but such lovely clean work. Hong's career, by contrast to most of those mentioned here, was lengthy - she competed in the 2004 Olympics right the way through to 2010, although she missed Beijing through injury. She was, aside from the originator, one of the first to compete the Amanar vault, bringing it back mainstream along with Shawn Johnson. She is sister to Hong Un Jong who has not been involved in an age controversy. They may be twins, but the latter competed much later than the former.

Daniela Silivas - Romania

Copyright - Ellie Langsley

Daniela Silivas is regarded as one of if not the greatest all-arounders of all time and regularly tops fan polls of favourite gymnasts. Her battle during the 1988 Olympics AA with Elena Shushunova is legendary and thrilling to watch but....Daniela began her career by competing underage during 1985 worlds, at the age of 13. A true all-arounder, she was typical of her nation in that her beam and floor stood out, despite the horrendous choreography meted out to her that year. Super energetic and sparkly, she managed to nab the beam title but didn't come into her own until later in the quad. Certainly she was the best Romanian gymnast of the 80's, and there is seriously stiff competition for that.

It's strange these days to contemplate gymnast's passports and dates of birth being switched and manipulated on the whim of a federation coach. Not that I think the practice has been 100% eradicated (note: I have no interest in suspicions re: named, unproven individuals, ESPECIALLY those concerning a certain team from 8 years ago YAWN), it probably never will be when states like the above still exist and the age restriction remains punitive. Of course, we have no idea of the true extent of age falsification - FIG themselves only uncovered 3 - especially during the 1980's. There is just no way only a small handful of gymnasts competed underage the entire decade. My money is on Romania as the biggest overall offenders, the Karolyi's had no qualms about this practice at the time (despite repeat bellyaching post-defect to the US, which they really have a nerve complaining about every year), and clearly neither did another long-time head coach, Octavian Bellu. They also had much less depth than the super strong USSR (who definitely have several more skeletons in the closet all the same, which coaches have alluded to) and therefore greater motive to bend the rules. They also showed form for skulduggery when they actually had one gymnast impersonate another at a meet in the US in 1981.

Anyway, I'm a big believer in appreciating the performance and the performance only. I find it very sad that there's a lot of people who call themselves gymnastics fans, but who spend far too much time condemning gymnasts from 2 quads ago, and current gymnasts of the same nationality, because why not. If it's really the biggest deal ever to them, then they should also spend their time blackening the names of the likes of Silivas and Gogean too, which will never happen. Nationality (read: of Asian extraction with absolutely zero thought given to the fact that some ethnic varieties have the good fortune to look younger than others with slighter frames to boot) and the identity of who the suspect beats seems to be all important.

Who's your favourite? Does the inconsistency of FIG action and fan reaction annoy you too? Can't we all just get along on the Gymternet? ;)


  1. Fabulous list. My heart will always belong to Silivas and Mostepanova, two of my favorite gymnasts of all time. Bicherova falls into the category of underrated Soviets. She, along with Davydova, are highly accomplished and not unknown but tend to be curiously overlooked by fans. Ah, and you are so right about the subtle racism and unfair suspicion cast upon Chinese gymnasts! I'm actually working on a two part post about body bias and one will be about the way the media vilifies Chinese gymnasts. The Karolyi's are full of shit in this regard. Fucking hypocrites. I absolutely agree that it is ridiculous and not to mention tragic that fans get so hung up on age-controversies to the point that they cease to appreciate the great gymnastics these girls gave us.

    1. I'm not sure which drives me up the wall more, body type bias or age controversy suspicion/condemnation of gymnasts without proof though of course there's big crossover between the two!

      While searching stuff for this, the sheer amount of big media types covering China's controversy in 2008 is absolutely ridiculous and so many of them in a hysterical 'The US have been deprived of medals' note. Depressing stuff.

      I can't wait to read it! It's just so frustrating when having a preference turns into such a negative, critical mindset. I know I've ranted with reference to it but not exclusively. I'm sure it will burst out at some point.

  2. I loved your inclusion of Yang Yun on this list; sadly, the age controversy will forever taint her legacy, but she was the one that stood out for me at the 2000 Olympics.

    I remembered watching her vaults on TV and just being floored at how beautiful it was. It was not gymnastics, but was art in motion and she excelled on the other apparatus in other ways too. Don't get me wrong, I think Raducan was a very talented gymnast too, but Yang Yun had the complete package. Her bars were floaty and effortless, beam was beautiful and had gorgeous lines, and then her floor was more of a performance (wasn't it mentioned by someone that it was based off of a Chinese Opera??).

    I was gutted when she fell off the beam in the AA and so many other things like the vault being low, Svetlana falling on bars, Karpenko tripping, etc. There were some many wrong things at those Olympics.

    But in regards to the age limit: I don't agree with the Chinese going against the rules and using underage gymnasts but on the other hand, if you have gymnasts who are underage, but are capable of being among the best in the world, why shut them out and tell them that they have to wait 4 more years at their chance to compete at the Olympics? How do we know that they will be at the same level 4 years from now? So for me it doesn't make sense. At least bring it down to like 14 (they obviously didn't have a problem with that in the past).

    1. They had a LOT of fabulous gymnasts in the 90's and early 2000's, but she really did stand out - her and Mo Huilan are my favourites. Her vaults are just ridiculous, I remember being floored the first time I saw them. Floaty vaults, especially FTY's in the early 90's were ten-a-penny but they were so much more than that - really, really stunning. I fully agree she had everything going for her - except a career or any longevity! Such a shame. I'd kill to have years and years of her to look back on.

      Bahaha, those Olympics were a trainwreck. The funny thing is that they were the first gymnastics competition I ever saw (I was rooting for Raducan over Khorkina and thought that the vault was some sort of a long jump) and all of the weirdness of the AA went over my head completely.

      I think there's a case to be made for lowering the age limit, to 15 anyway. I wouldn't be overly comfortable with it going lower because of the demands of difficulty on a growing body. These days, there's less motivation to use underage gymnasts - of course, there will always be girls who peak and are screwed by their birth year, sometimes just by a matter of days or weeks but just in terms of difficulty - the sport has advanced so much and it takes times and more body mass to build up the difficulty and to sustain the pounding.

    2. I agree with the age limit to being 15. Maybe 14 years old would be too young, but there are a bunch of 14 year olds, especially in the U.S., who are capable of performing immense difficulty like I remember Lexie Priessman doing some high difficulty work and also Sae Miyakawa back in 2013 when she already had the front layout, dbl front on floor and the double layout. So some athletes can handle that pounding for sure, but I agree that back in the day the 10 score system did prevent younger gymnasts from "killing" themselves.

      I loved the 90s-2000s era, especially 96-00 when we saw the likes of Produnova, Khorkina, Amanar, etc. I thought it was the best quad in terms of combining the past with perfect form and execution (they stuck so many landings in the Olympics) and the future with difficult skills being done (who could forget Maloneys passes on floor). The Sydney Olympics, even though it was the Olympics, really tainted that quad with all of the controversies surrounding it, but nonetheless a great time for gymnastics.

  3. Thanks for posting that Kim ub routine. That is so original and risky. I hope FIG will start reward these routines more instead of the constant transition-fest that we are now seeing from everyone.

  4. Did you know that Eugenia Golea age was falsified from 1971 to 1969. I only just found that out when the commentator said she was was 19 years of age, when she was actually 17 years of age.