Are young Olympic athletes receiving adequate protection? Part 1

Disparity between sports approach to the minimum ages of competing athletes Published 19 January 2016 By: Robert Tomback, Clare Freshwater


With eyes turning towards the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Rio (Rio 2016), and with athletes getting faster, stronger and younger, this article considers the growing imperative of ensuring that there are sufficient and appropriate measures in place to protect the welfare of young athletes.

The place of young athletes in sport should be constantly considered and reviewed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and National Governing Bodies (NGB's) in order to ensure that they are receiving the required support and protection. As such, how young athletes are to be protected permeates every element of how sports operate. However, for succinctness and with a focus on Rio 2016, this two part article will focus on:

  • Part 1, below - how ‘child’ athletes are defined and the disparities between the minimum ages for entry into differing Olympic events.
  • Part 2, available here – the sufficiency of the safeguarding measures in place, including an examination of the regulations of the IOC, the role of current safeguarding initiatives, and the adequacy of domestic laws to protect child athletes against media intrusion.


Defining “child” athletes

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (as ratified by the UK) classifies a child as anyone under 181 (defined in this article as a 'Minor', with 'Young Athlete' referring to all athletes aged 19 or younger).

Forty one sports2 are being contested at Rio 2016, and there no standardised minimum age limit for competitors, other than as may be prescribed in the competition rules of an International Federation.3 There is therefore some uncertainty as to what regulations and protections are actually in place to assist the Young Athletes looking towards Rio 2016.


The 'minimum age' of competitors for qualification to Rio 2016

The table below sets out a number of the Olympic sports that will be contested at Rio 2016 and the minimum age of competitor's.

The variation between minimum ages is evident, where for example in Diving, all athletes participating at Rio 2016 must be born before 1 January 2003, enabling an athlete to be 13 during the Rio 2016 games and only turn 14 on 30 December 2016.4

In comparison, other sports like Beach Volleyball insist that the athlete must be 14 on the first day of the competition at Rio 2016, i.e. on 7 August 2016.5

Sport Minimum Age to compete at Rio 20166 Date born on / before to compete at Rio 2016
Athletics 16 31.12.20007
Beach Volleyball 14 07.08.2002
Boxing 19 Between 01.01.1976 and not later than 31.12.1997
Cycling BMX 18 31.12.1998
Cycling Mountain Bike 19 31.12.1997
Cycling Track 18 31.12.1998
Diving 14 31.12.2002
Gymnastics Rhythmic 16 31.12.2000
Gymnastics Artistic

M : 18

F : 16




M : must be under 238

F : No max age

Judo 15 31.12.2001
Equestrian/Dressage 16 31.12.2000
Equestrian/Jumping 18 31.12.1998
Trampoline 18 31.12.1998
Taekwondo 17 31.12.1999
Weightlifting 15 31.12.2001
Wrestling Freestyle and Greco-Roman


* but 18 with parental authorisation


By contrast, the International Paralympic Committee (the "IPC") has adopted a more principle based approach. In their qualification guide for the Rio 2016 Paralympic games, the IPC states that on a general basis there is no minimum age limit for athletes to compete.9 Instead, National Paralympic Committees are encouraged to only send Minors to Rio 2016 who are adequately prepared for high performance competition. Further to this general principle, the IPC has provided the option for International Federations of individual sports to establish minimum age criteria, yet this route has not been widely taken up. In incidents where International Federations have set out minimum age limits, the same variations as seen in IOC governed sport are apparent. For example the minimum age for cycling at the Rio 2016 Paralympic games is 18 whilst for football the minimum age requirement is 15.10

The Olympic Charter states that the mission of the IOC is to promote 'Olympism' throughout the world11 and part of the IOC's role is to "encourage and support the development of sport for all".12 If the aim is indeed to promote sport for 'all' then perhaps qualification should be based upon ability and not age.

For example, Alana Hadley, the 19-year-old American marathon runner, won the Indianapolis marathon in 2014 aged 17. Alana's time would put her in the top quarter of the women who will run the Olympic marathon trials in February, but no matter how well she does in the trials, Hadley will not be running the Marathon at Rio 2016.

The IAAF requires Olympic marathoners to be at least 20 years old by December 31 2016, whilst Hadley's 20th birthday is on January 8, 2017, meaning that she is eight days too late to meet the age requirement.13


The disparity between the 'minimum age'

What is perplexing is the obvious disparity between the age qualifications for each sport. For example if Hadley was a 100 meter or even 10,000 meter runner she could compete at Rio 2016. But how is this logical? Why is a 16-year-old female allowed to compete in Artistic Gymnastics when her male counterpart has to wait until he is 18?14

The answer for why some sports operate a 'minimum age' logically appears to be for the athlete's physical and emotional protection. But this then raises the question of why the Olympic Marathon age limit is 20 when you can compete in all six world marathon majors at 19? Furthermore, what protections are in place for our 13-year-old diver that are not in place for our 19-year-old marathon runner?


The link between "minimum age" and the protection of Minors

Whilst some sports have clearly defined strict age limits, others such as Water Polo or Rowing do not. If age limits are set for the protection of the Young Athletes, this lack of clarity on the part of the IOC is unexplained.

The constraint of a minimum age is clear in other parts of a Young Athlete's life, for example they need to be 17 to drive a car15 and 16 to leave school16 - yet when it comes to competing in Rio 2016 the minimum age requirement depends solely upon their chosen sport.

This is because the IOC acknowledges17 that sports organisations within the Olympic movement have the rights and obligations of autonomy, which include freely establishing and controlling the rules of their sport, as set out in the Olympic Charter as Fundamental Principle 5.

However, by delegating down and absolving responsibility of engaging with the minimum age debate, the IOC has missed the opportunity to take a hand in shaping how the minimum age of athletes and the protection of Young Athletes should be balanced.

The protection of Young Athletes is essential for their future health and fitness, yet even when a minimum age is set for an athlete's protection, this limit can on occasion, be waived. For example, Tom Daley was 12 (two years below the minimum age), when he gained special dispensation to compete at the Youth Olympics in Sydney in January 2007 after the Diving and the British Olympic Association made a formal request. The then Australian Olympic Committee Secretary General Craig Philipps responded saying "Given his results we could hardly refuse the request".18

Counteracted against this success story is the story of gymnast Julissa Gomez who broke her neck on a vault shortly before Olympic trials,19 and triathlete Hollie Avil who cut her career short after battling an eating disorder triggered by a coach's damaging behaviour.20 Whilst Julissa's and Hollie's story are not as well documented as Tom's, the issue surrounding the appropriate age of when athletes should be competing at the highest level is the same.

What is clear from these examples is that appropriate protection is needed for Young Athletes, with a minimum age of athletes to be set and the rationale behind this age limit clearly communicated. With 28 different International Federations21 currently setting the age limits of its athletes, it is important that the IOC considers its role and responsibility in governing this process to ensure both fairness and transparency across all sports.

Part 2 of this article goes on to consider the sufficiency of safeguarding measures currently in place. It looks at the regulations of the IOC, the role of current safeguarding initiatives, and the adequacy of domestic laws to protect Young Athletes against media intrusion.


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Robert Tomback

Robert Tomback

Rob is a dedicated Sports Lawyer working within the Mishcon de Reya Sports Group. He has wide experience across a range of sports, providing litigious, commercial and regulatory advice to clients. He acts for a range of governing bodies, clubs, players and agents and has represented clients in cases before the Court of Arbitration for Sport and other international sports decision making federations, as well as at domestic arbitral and disciplinary hearings. Rob was named as a Sport Industry NextGen Leader, an initiative 'to identify tomorrow’s sports leaders and celebrate the rising stars of the sports industry'. Rob is the only practicing lawyer to receive this accolade.

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Clare Freshwater

Clare Freshwater

Clare is a trainee solicitor at Mishcon de Reya LLP, currently working in the Fraud team. Clare is part of the firms Sports Group with experience acting for governing bodies and clubs, and is also a member of Women In Football.

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