Plenty of people dream of competing in the Olympics, standing before a roaring crowd, and taking home a medal on behalf of their country. But for some young athletes, that dream may be realized long before they're even out of high school. So just how old do you have to be to compete in the Olympics? When you look at the roster of athletes — particularly for gymnasts, who seem to begin training practically out of the womb — they appear younger and younger each year.
The International Olympic Committee does not have one standard age minimum or limit, however, and instead defer to each individual country's International Sports Federation. These federations are non-governmental organizations that oversee and manage the daily happenings of the world's sports. They are recognized by the IOC, and in order to compete in the Olympics, a country's IF must adhere to the standards and practices set by the Olympic charter.
That is why you'll sometimes see athletes ranging in age based on their country of origin or their particular sport. For instance, Olympic gymnasts must be 16 years of age, or turning 16 within the calendar year, to be eligible to compete. One of the youngest American athletes who vied for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics was gymnast Christina Desiderio, a 15-year-old with an upcoming August birthday; though she didn't make the team this year, she'll be well above age for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
But for these athletes, making it into the Olympics while young simply means that they are likely competing in or close to reaching their prime. According to a study from the Institute of Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology featured in Wired, athletes start to see an irreversible decline in their bodies beginning around the age of 26. The constant physical strain they have to put their bodies through sees many athletes "peaking" around 25 to 26, before the inevitable decline sets in.
John Geddert, head coach of the 2012 U.S. women's Olympic gymnastic team, stressed this to The Washington Post, saying, "Without sounding condescending to young women, this [gymnastics] is a little girl's sport. With their body changes and the wear-and-tear everybody goes through, once they become women, it just becomes very, very difficult."
Of course, that doesn't mean that there aren't exceptions. Take swimmer Dara Torres, who secured the title of the oldest swimming medalist of all time when she took home three silver medals at the 2008 Olympics at the age of 41.
That goes to show age isn't everything — but if you want the greatest chance to take home a medal, it'd be best to find time in your 20's. No big deal, right?