The Great Age Debate

14-year-old Ashima Shiraishi competing at this year's Portland Boulder Rally

13-year-old Ashima Shiraishi competing in the Portland Boulder Rally. Photo by Ben Moon.

Today we’ve got a great read from guest contributor John Burgman on a question competitive sports have been asking for decades…

How young is too young for a climber to be crushing it in competitions?

If you went to the fridge for another beer at some point while YouTubing the recent 2014 Portland Boulder Rally, you might have missed the off-handed commentary about age restrictions that sparked discussion of the question on social media and message boards—in essence, reigniting a timeless debate that spans all sports.

Here are the details: while sharing play-by-play duties at the commentary desk, bouldering superstar Alex Johnson was asked how she felt about Ashima Shiraishi being allowed to compete in the Portland competition, despite the fact that Shiraishi is under 16 years old.

“A lot of these events lately haven’t been conforming to the 16-and-up, pro-event rule, so it has been interesting having [Shiraishi] thrown into the mix,” Johnson said.

Johnson was then asked her opinion on so many recent competitions not adhering to the widely-accepted age restrictions.

“Personally, for me, it is frustrating…” Johnson said. “But then, on the other hand, when [Alex] Puccio and I were 13, we were doing the same thing, competing against Lisa Rands, and now I feel bad about it. I feel like I should have waited until I was 16. It’s frustrating, but only personally because of my ego, I think.”

alex and ashima

Alex and Ashima are friends first and competitors second. Photo from FiveTen.com.

Johnson was being candid, and as a veteran of the sport who has won big-time competitions, her opinion carries a lot of validity. Shiraishi is only 13 years old. The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), the governing body that tends to set that standards the trickle down to regional organizations, states in its rulebook, “Only competitors who are or will be at least 16 years of age in the year of the competition …shall be eligible to compete in a World Cup competition.” That rule is the reason why we don’t often get to see Shiraishi, who would unquestionably be an elite participant in any age category, compete against other elite climbers like Alex Johnson or Alex Puccio.

But the debate isn’t cut and dry, and for a brief second, some of the climbing community on the Internet responded to Johnson’s comment with a number of varying thoughts on whether kids should be allowed to compete with adults. Let’s examine both sides of the eligibility argument a little closer.

Argument: Age restrictions that limit eligibility are a GOOD thing

It’s uncommon in American sports to see children competing alongside adults, to the point where it just seems “wrong” in the eyes of many spectators. America not only segments its youth from adults, but also often segments the youth into sub-segments: 16-and-under, 12-15, 10-7, 6-and-under, etc. The degree of division in some sports is almost ridiculous. However, most reasoning behind all age requirements likely comes down to the singular idea of protecting the young competitors.

The IFSC started in 2007, so we don’t have much linear climbing competition history from which to draw for analysis. The best we can do is attempt to draw rough parallels from a few other sports.

Competitive gymastics may be the most closely related sport to competitive climbing

Competitive gymnastics may be the best comparison to climbing. Photo by The Chicago Tribune.

Competitive gymnastics is the sport most often referenced with competitive climbing, as there are some overlapping skills in terms of core strength, flexibility, and controlled full-body movement. Also, competitive gymnastics’ age restrictions are currently similar to those of the IFSC—competitors must be 16 years old in order to compete with adults. The supportive science for the age restriction cites issues such as weaker bone structure of participants who are younger than 16 years old. “They’re still growing,” is the popular refrain of adults. Some children around this age also have coordination problems due to the gangliness inherent in puberty.

Potential mental stress and burnout of the young competitors is another justification for limiting their participation in high-stress, adult competitions. We’ve all seen the crazy-eyed parents who are clearly living vicariously through the athletic accomplishments of their young children, and such constant pressure can have long-term psychological effects on kids.

Argument: Age restrictions that limit eligibility are a BAD thing

One of the biggest arguments for allowing youth like Shiraishi to participate in events with adult competitors is a theoretical one, but since all sports begin as theory, it’s hard to ignore. Competition is founded on the principle that the outcome will reveal the best entrant. Thus, age discrimination is unjustifiable. In more practical terms: if Shiraishi has the climbing credentials to pose a threat to the reigning champions, then it’s hard to rationalize her exclusion from major competitions. Youth have bested adults in other sports—for example, tennis player Martina Hingis winning a Grand Slam title in doubles at age 15, in 1996—so the sport of climbing wouldn’t exactly be breaking new ground by allowing youth to play with the adults.

Martina Hingis

Martina Hingis makes tennis history at age 15. Photo from CNN.

The physicality argument for age restrictions in climbing can be pecked at as well. Unlike many other sports, climbing isn’t about relentless power. Rather, climbing requires power as a ratio to one’s own body mass. Shiraishi likely isn’t hitting the weight room, stacking unreasonable amounts of iron onto a barbell in hopes of building bulk; she’s simply carrying her own weight up the wall—no more, no less.

But in a more abstract sense, consider climbing in its fundamental iteration. There are mountains and crags and boulders all over the world, ready and open for anyone to climb, and it is laughable to imagine climbing on some of those routes or problems being deemed illegal based on age. In the purest sense of sport, nothing but ability matters—prejudice based on age (or anything) is just silly.

What does the future hold?

Gymnastics has fluctuated on its age restrictions throughout history, and it’s not crazy to think that climbing might as well. It’s interesting to note that there was a period—in the 1960s and 1970s —when the best female gymnasts in the world were in their 20s. When famed American gymnast Cathy Rigby won the U.S. Nationals two times in the 1970s, for example, she was 18 years old and then 20 years old. But as gymnastics progressed in nuance, and the routines became more demanding, the sport started trending rapidly and significantly toward youth. Teenagers became dominant, to the point where the notion of someone becoming an Olympic champion at age 30—as was the case with Maria Gorokhovskaya in 1952—is inconceivable now. Gymnast Gabrielle Douglass was 16—the minimum age—when she won her widely-celebrated gold medal at the 2012 Olympics.

Could it be that climbing, a relatively recent sanctioned competitive sport, is destined for a similar fate to gymnastics? It’s not uncommon nowadays to have champion climbers, like Jain Kim, who are 27 years old or older. Might we see our own rapid and significant trend toward youth, with a majority of the future elites hovering around the 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old mark?

17-year-old Megan Mascarenas and 13-year-old Ashima Shiraishi podium at this years s

17-year-old Megan Mascarenas and 13-year-old Ashima Shiraishi podium at this year’s Portland Boulder Rally. Is younger and younger the trend for comp climbing? Photo by Ben Moon.

So the question remains—and will likely continue to spark discussion with every young gym rat that outshines the old dogs on the wall. Should kids be allowed to compete with adults? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Climb on!
John

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14 thoughts on “The Great Age Debate

  1. Rebecca says:

    Really interesting. I feel like this bares some relation to why men and women compete separately. I guess the argument is that our bodies are different so to make the competition fair and interesting, we compete separately. Can we argue that kids and adults’ bodies are composed in such a different way that they should compete separately?

  2. TLO says:

    It will be interesting to see how allowing under 16 climbers to compete with the “big kids” will affect local comps. I will admit that as someone who started climbing/competing after college and missed out on the youth comp circuit, it can be frustrating to compete against the stretchy tendons and never ending energy of 13 year olds. Like Alex Johnson mentioned, it’s ego. I like to feel like I’m on an even playing field, let the kids wait their turn etc. etc. Especially when you’re a weekend warrior shelling out $50 to compete. (Love you kid climbers, I really do. I’m just old and cranky.)

  3. Katie says:

    Yeah, it’s a little strange to imagine Alex Puccio in a Winner’s Circle, popping bottles of champagne next to 13 year old girls. Will they then allow adults that are competing at the youth level to join youth competitions? 😉

  4. Todd says:

    I eat children for breakfast. Proverbially. In the competition setting.

  5. sean says:

    im curious to understand the laws surrounding kid professionals. if kids under 16 cant work part-time jobs and cannot work full-time until theyre 18 how do climbers like Ashima skirt those rules? what changes for pro-athletes? i know they are taxed differently. its all relevant here i think. its a job, with expectations and obligations. if we allow them to receive paychecks and endorsements shouldnt they be allowed to compete to earn these?

    • Nick says:

      I believe that Ashima is allowed to do this because having sponsors isn’t the same as having a job. And then climbing is treated just like any other sport that children routinely participate in while going to school. Most competitions are on weekends, and then going on outdoor trips on weekends and school breaks is easy enough.

  6. Jaime says:

    I think a lot of the comps give a huge disadvantage to youth – they are shorter and have to figure out more ridiculous beta. If Ashima wins an “adult” comp, she will have won not because her tendons are stretchy or because she has more energy, but because she figured out the problems in a more efficient way. I’m glad Alex Johnson mentioned her ego, which was also probably bruised because she didn’t make it through qualifiers. In the end, climbing should be fun. More power to Ashima and other youth for having the mental capabilities to deal with that much chaos and criticism from people who they probably looked up to.

  7. If adult competitions are the only way to compete, then the young up and comers must be allowed. Gymnastics is a much more widely practiced sport and youth competitions are common place. Children climbers don’t have the same outlet.

  8. Ben says:

    I have nothing against young climbers competing in the end. If they can win, more power to them. Climbing is about physical mastery, and there is an undeniable advantage to starting as young as possible. Just don’t favour them with the competition setting. Keep setting the problems for average sized men and women, the kids will deal.

    That said, as a late 20s climber, I almost think it’s a different sport for them. I’m 200lbs, v10 crimps are friggin tiny for me. For Ashima, they are so large as to be laughable. The challenges they face from climbing are so different to what I face, I just can’t relate.

    I bear the little kiddies no ill will, but I just can’t get psyched watching them climb. It doesn’t mean the same to me as it does watching Fred Nicole crush something. I think it probably has something to do with the sacrifice required to climb hard as you get older. You have to go to work, you have to cook, clean, AND train?! Tough stuff. Not the same as living at home with a mum and dad to look after you. 🙂

  9. Alex Johnson says:

    Haha. It’s true, it’s true. It’s my ego. I’m getting old and curmudgeony! Ashima is a phenomenal climber, with comprehension for movement far beyond her age, and having her at adult events really adds an interesting twist in the competitiveness, and is a great showcase for our sport. Plus, she’s just a super sweet kid.
    Regarding all youth competitors who compete at the pro level, once you declare yourself as a “pro” and start winning money in pro events, I don’t believe you should be allowed to return to youth events. That’s actually my main, and really only, hang-up with this subject, it isn’t really about age.
    My ego aside, it’s inspiring to see the talent of the incredible young climbers that are already becoming the future of this sport. And they’re pretty fun to climb with.

  10. Bob the fat climber says:

    i think separation is good. Climbing is a battle against gravity, a kid has a weight advantage. Make em wait till they are 16, if they are truly great climbers they will win when they are older too.

  11. Rachel Luna says:

    I think the age debate is going to continue in every sport until the end of time. It’s hard having kids that like to do things that grown ups do when their is no appropriate outlet for them. I have two girls that are competitive climbers, ages 10 and 11. They love climbing and training, but don’t adore competitions, so they utilize the competitions as a means of overcoming stage fright much like taking a speech class. I’m ok with that. But my 11 year old loves to run, and there are virtually no age appropriate events for kids that are longer than a “fun run.” So she runs adult events with me. I try to keep her pacing “appropriate” so she doesn’t get caught up in the hype of the über elite runners that are there for PR. I get flack on both sides- those who feel she shouldn’t be running long distances at her age, and those who feel I’m holding her back. One commenter posted that it seemed ridiculous to limit something in nature, like kids climbing on rocks 🙂 And I feel much the same about running. My kids also do parkour, and I’m amazed at the number of people so adamantly opposed to kids training in parkour. We can argue the unnatural abuse on the body of super strict/formal ballet, gymnastics, etc on the body- and rock climbing can easily slip in and out of that world (e.g. Shoes too tight for foot development, finger tendon rupture, etc) but quality coaching mitigates that the way we haven’t seen in other more widely accepted sports (gymnastics, chiefly.) Rock climbing has yet to be blamed for female athlete triad. Rock climbing has yet to encounter concussion and second impact syndrome like with ball based sports. Rock climbing has yet to show the same long term risk of body damage like chronic hip and shoulder dislocation associated with ballet, or the psychological trauma and pressure to perform like gymnastics or even less athletic events like pageantry. Maybe as more youth take on the sport, we’ll see more of that. Currently, rock climbing has served to empower and challenge my girls to use their bodies efficiently- controlled, purposeful movement. I feel that if my short, 29kg daughter can climb a 5.12+ set for the average adult, with a sense of accomplishment and a further love for the sport, I don’t understand why I should not support her desire to try. She competes with other 11 year olds; she’s lucky we live in a rich climbing community where she has an outlet to compete with other kids. But when we practice in the gym, she knows and climbs with all of the adults who are working out at the same time. They welcome her to struggle on the same problems; they share beta both ways; and they cheer whether she sends a problem or simply endeavors to try. I personally wouldn’t feel certain competing with adults would be the right thing for my girls, but don’t also feel good about telling them they can’t do something they’ve got a talent for simply because they’re too young. Ultimately, I feel governing bodies take that hard decision away from me in a way that affords me a lot of latitude to allow them to succeed at their level, while providing a play/life balance to do other things. Like trail run through the forest and scale tall buildings in a single bound 🙂

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