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Old Olympians Ride Horses; Young Ones Do Flips

We’re on the ground in Rio covering the 2016 Summer Olympics. Check out all our coverage here.

Most adults probably feel as though they missed their chance at making it to the Olympics. Even at 24, I feel decrepit and ancient watching 19-year-old Simone Biles execute flips and twists at the Rio Games with an athleticism that I will never attain. Still, Biles got me wondering which Olympic events I theoretically might still have a shot of participating in at my age (assuming I could change pretty much everything about my genetic makeup and lifestyle in a very short period of time). For each sport of the 2016 Games, I looked at the median age of the participants — overall, men and women — using data from athlete profile pages on the Rio 2016 website.1


As I expected, gymnasts are among the youngest Olympians. Of all the groups I looked at, women’s artistic gymnastics (the “regular” gymnastics)2 has the lowest median age — 19. That puts Biles in the very middle of her peers. Also, artistic gymnastics (along with golf) has the largest gap between the median ages of men and women participants — five years. That’s because of the sport’s high number of women and girls under 20.


Although the youngest athlete competing in Rio is 13-year-old Gaurika Singh, a swimmer representing Nepal, gymnastics is unique for its high concentration of teenage girls. This year, 16.8 percent of gymnasts are younger than 18, and all of those young athletes are women. Swimming has a higher total number of competitors under 18, but that group makes up only 9.1 percent of the field. That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. Oksana Chusovitina, a 41-year-old from Uzbekistan, is competing in her seventh Olympics, making her the oldest female gymnast in Olympic history. Chusovitina will compete in the vault finals on Sunday.

What about the other end of the age spectrum, where I might have a chance? With a median age of 36, equestrians are the oldest Olympians. More sedate sports also tend to have older athletes; golf and shooting are near the top of the list. Beach volleyball, tennis and cycling also have older competitors.

The prize for the oldest Olympian in Rio goes to 62-year-old Julie Brougham, a rider from New Zealand who is attending her first Olympics. Brougham had her Olympic debut Wednesday, in individual dressage. But Brougham isn’t the only athlete in Rio who has lived at least six decades. There are four other Olympians who are 60 or older, all of whom are competing in equestrian events. Still, equestrian is not dominated by older competitors: Among Olympic sports, it has one of the widest distribution of ages, with athletes that range in age over a 44-year span.


It’s not age holding me back from being an Olympian. If I want a shot at gold in 2056, I had better go find a horse.


  1. As of Aug. 3, there were 11,384 athletes on the site for which we obtained age data.

  2. There are two other categories of gymnastics at the Olympics: trampoline and rhythmic.

Ella Koeze was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.


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