Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Minimum and Maximum Age Limits for Competing at the Olympic Games

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Minimum and Maximum Age Limits for Competing at the Olympic Games

Article excerpt


Age is a characteristic beyond a person's control. Similar to height, skin colour, nationality, or sex at birth, a person's age is an attribute he or she can neither negotiate nor modify. Limiting a person's eligibility to join a group or perform an action based on his or her age can be problematic if a strong justification for the age-based exclusion does not exist.

This paper discusses whether or not the application of minimum and maximum age limits in the Olympic Games is a justifiable practice that ought to continue. Through an analysis of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s current and previous stances toward age as a criterion of Olympic eligibility, this study demonstrates that while minimum age limits are necessary to protect young athletes' health and rights to open futures, one cannot justify upper age limits using the same paternalistic reasoning and arguments.

The IOC's Position on Age Limits

The Olympic Charter contains the rules and bye-laws that govern the bidding, organization, and hosting of the Olympic Games. Among the 59 rules and numerous bye-laws contained in the document, which functions as the operating manual for the Olympic movement, is the IOC's stance on restricting the Olympic Games to athletes of specific ages. The current rendition of Rule 43, entitled "Age Limits," states: "There may be no age limit for competitors in the Olympic Games other than as prescribed in the competition rules of an IF [International Federation] as approved by the IOC Executive Board." (1) Functioning without a bye-law or any other explanatory information, Rule 43 enables an IF to propose age restrictions for specific events falling under its organization. Yet this has not always been the case. Earlier versions of the "Age Limits" rule in the Olympic Charter merely stated that the IOC does not impose age limits for competitors. (2) The clause that an IF can restrict events to athletes of specific ages, as long as the IOC Executive Board approves the age-based eligibility constraint, modifies the rule's original intent and form.

The IOC has little to no influence in the way an IF organizes and administers its sport's rules, world championships, and general operations. However, rule 6.3 of the Olympic Charter gives the IOC the final decision on all matters related to the Olympic Games. The rule clarifies: "The authority of last resort on any question concerning the Olympic Games rests with the IOC, (3) thereby empowering the IOC to challenge any recommendation put forth by an IF. Age limits at the Olympic Games are thus approved by the IOC as a whole and the IOC Executive Board specifically.

At no point in its history has the IOC implemented a rule restricting all of the events on the Olympic program to athletes falling within a specific age range. Athletes of all ages compete against one another in each event at the Olympic Games, unlike at the ancient festivals in Olympia where organizers held separate competitions for men and for boys. At the ancient Olympic Games, rather than require that each participant appear in Olympia with proof of his age, the judges "trusted to their eyes and their common sense, instead, with the aim of preventing blatant mismatches." (4) Boys' events were restricted to competitors who appeared to be between the ages of twelve and eighteen, but it is possible that tall boys who had not yet turned twelve years of age competed as well. Judges could use their discretion in moving up a well-developed boy to compete in the men's competition if he looked strong enough to contend against the older participants. (5) The tradition of separate competitions for boys and men is not one that Pierre de Coubertin included in his vision of the modern Olympic Games; hence the Olympic program has never included more than one age division in each event. While multiple age divisions within a competition are not a part of the Olympics, age limits are in effect in several events contested at the Games. …

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