Whelan backs raising women’s age limit to 18
Hannah Whelan, the two-time Olympian, has become the most high-profile former British gymnast to call for the minimum age for female competitors to be raised from 16 to 18.
International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) rules stipulate that men cannot compete in senior competition, including the Olympics and World Championships, unless they turn 18 in the same year. But female competitors can do so from as young as 16.
As first reported in the The Daily Telegraph last week, former Commonwealth champion Lisa Mason said changing the minimum age of senior-level female athletes would help improve conditions, after a deluge of abusive coaching claims have been made by gymnasts around the world.
On Wednesday night, she and fellow British whistleblower Catherine Lyons, along with American abuse survivors Jennifer Sey and Rachael Denhollander, echoed that point in an ITV News interview, and Whelan agrees.
Now a coach at Warrington Gymnastics Club, the Commonwealth medallist argued that more was being asked of gymnasts from a younger age than when she was in the system.
“I think it would be a great idea [to raise the age],” Whelan, 28, said. “I think, especially in this country, the way the elite compulsory system has evolved, so the set routines they have to do from a certain age to go up a grade, is just getting harder and harder.
“From when I did it, at nine, 10, 11 years old, it’s much harder for gymnasts the same age now. They’re being pushed to do ridiculous hours, pushed to have more time off school, which is just crazy. They’re doing scarier skills, which is maybe putting more pressure on the coaches. The kids are doing the skills through fear rather than taking their time to learn them.”
Last week, the FIG told The Telegraph “where physical maturity at a later age greatly benefits male gymnasts, it does not usually provide the same value for women”, but Whelan argued those traditional notions were shifting. She said gymnasts such as Becky Downie, a contemporary and a world silver medallist, and 23-year-old superstar Simone Biles, were continuing at elite level well into their twenties, meaning there was no need to rush young girls into senior competition.
“Up until a few years ago you wouldn’t hear of female athletes carrying on past the age of 20, now it’s much more common and supported,” Whelan said. “That’s also because of the science and research behind it, there’s so much more knowledge we have to keep gymnasts in the sport for longer, so why start them at 16?”
Too low: Hannah Whelan, who competed at two Olympics, wants the age limit for senior women raised from 16