Why are female athletes getting older?
Data by Adrienne Shum, Rohan Kapur
Writing and Analysis by Michelle Lee, Adrienne Shum
Design by Eeza Sheren
It’s an established trend - Olympic athletes are getting older. Advancements in sports science, training programs, and increased funding have contributed to the career longevity of Olympic athletes.
What’s interesting is that not only are Olympic athletes getting older, the age gap between male and female athletes is shrinking. The age gap between genders was 3.6 years in 1980. In 2021, it fell to 1. The average age of female Olympians is now closer to that of their male counterparts more than ever before.
Average age of male and female Olympians over time.
The Olympics reflects a phenomenon we see occurring across many sports, from tennis to football. It represents a dataset across a wide range of sports over time and across countries, allowing us to track changes in athlete demographics.
With the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics, we decided to dive into the data to find out more.
This trend persists across sports, except gymnastics and equestrianism.
Age differences between male and female Olympic athletes in 1980 and 2021
The narrowing trend persists across a variety of sports except gymnastics and equestrianism.
Equestrianism has historically been the exception to other sports’ preference for youth. Many equestrians compete into middle age, with Japan’s Hiroshi Hoketsu - who first competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics - competing in London 2012 at the age of 71.
Not only is equestrianism friendlier to older athletes, it’s also been hailed for promoting gender equality as the only Olympic sport not split by gender. The sport’s relative agnosticism to gender and age has been attributed to its focus on skill, experience, and communication with one’s horse, over physical power or strength.
Yet, despite the sport’s seemingly progressive nature, men continue to dominate at the higher levels. Even though women make up the majority of competitors in the dressage event, the other events are dominated by men thanks to an ‘old boys’ club’ culture that gatekeeps women's access to elite teams.
Equestrians tend to reach their competitive peak later than other athletes, continuing to ride until their 50s or later. Societal expectations for women to bear the brunt of child-rearing means that women drop out earlier to raise families while men continue their careers indefinitely, widening the age gap. This is particularly the case for couples where both spouses are equestrians.
Olympic medals for equestrianism per gender since 1912. Since 1912, male riders have won individual gold at every single Olympic Game for the sport of eventing, one of the three events within equestrianism
Gymnastics has the biggest gender age gap, which has remained the case for over forty years. While ages of female gymnasts have grown, partly due to recent allegations of systemic abuse against young female gymnasts, there are still far more older male gymnasts than females.
This may not come as a surprise since female and male gymnastic events are completely different - to the extent that they seem like separate sports. Female gymnasts compete in four events while men compete in six, and they only share two common events: the vault and floor. Even amongst the shared event, i.e. the floor, the skills and qualities are emphasized differently across gender. For instance, male routines tend to focus on upper body strength while female routines prioritise flexibility and grace, and are often accompanied by music and dance.
The age gap between gender exists partly due to physiology. Men’s bodies mature later than women so they are able to compete at a later age, especially when their bodies are more fully developed. Women, on the other hand, undergo changes to their hips and torsos with the oncoming of womanhood, which alters the physics of twisting and flipping. Younger female gymnasts, with their greater flexibility and small stature, would tend to reach their prime in the sport at a much earlier age.
What might account for the overall narrowing age gap?
When we take a step back to look at the bigger picture, we observe 3 reasons that might account for the narrowing age gap between genders across the majority of Olympic sports.
Women are delaying motherhood
Pregnancies have a significant physical and mental impact on women. It is especially important for elite athletes to consider the timing of having a baby as they go through changes that impact training and performance, e.g. sleeplessness, changing hormone levels and weight gain . Mentally, athletes may become more risk-averse, with certain activities posing potential danger to babies’ development and health. Pregnancy and motherhood could mean that women have to spend a considerable amount of time nursing and recovering to get back to peak performance.
This is a huge trade-off for many female athletes dreaming of starting a family. For example, Mandy Bujold, a competitive Canadian boxer, almost had to give up her 2020 Olympic dream, as she missed the qualifying tournaments due to her pregnancy. Thankfully, she fought back and changed the qualification criteria which now accommodates women who were pregnant or postpartum during the qualification period.
Olympian-mums are challenging assumptions about motherhood and sporting performance
Superstar athlete-mums are increasingly disproving the perception that motherhood reduces performance and speaking out against sponsorship discrimination.
Natasha Hastings, a gold medalist in the 2008 and 2016 Olympic 4×400-meter relay, continues to pursue her dream of sport and family.
By telling their pregnancy stories, female athletes are demanding change and fighting for their rights. For instance, U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix’s vocal advocacy has pushed major corporations to reconsider how they support female athletes before and after pregnancy. In fact, many elite female athletes are challenging the assumption that motherhood diminishes sporting ability, reporting that motherhood has given them a renewed sense of purpose in their athletic careers.
The rise in women’s sports sponsorship and prize money
Even though the gender pay gap still exists, it’s slowly narrowing. According to a recent BBC sport study, the gender prize money gap in sport is closing: more than 90% of sports pay sportsmen and sportswomen equally at major championships or events, compared to 70% in 2014. With the increase in financial compensation amongst sportswomen, the idea of being a full-time athlete becomes a viable career path for many female athletes.
Equality of prize money: Percentage of sports that offer equal prize money to both male and female athletes in 2014, 2017, and 2021.
While we’re seeing progress towards equal pay in sports, there’s still more work to be done. Take football as an example, where women earn $0.11 for every $1.00 a man earns; the prize fund for the Women's World Cup in 2019 was nine times less than the men’s World Cup in 2018.
What are the implications?
The rising age of female athletes is a manifestation of the strides in women’s rights that have taken place over the last half century. These athletes send a strong message: Women should not have to put aside their personal goals and dreams to start a family. Women can be moms and still perform at the highest level.
With cultural, structural, and technological barriers slowly being dismantled, we predict that the age gap between female and male Olympians will only continue to narrow. The introduction of mixed gender team events, minimum age regulations, and advancements in sports science and medicine all continue to level the playing field.
As the age of female athletes rises, sports brands should take note and act in support of changing societal norms. Smaller brands like Athleta and Sweaty Betty are leading the charge by sponsoring a diverse range of female athletes across life stages and lifestyles. They can also develop and market products that serve the needs of women of different age groups and life stages, such as training apps with programs targeted towards those who are pregnant, trying for babies, or postpartum.
We can’t wait to see the 2024 Olympics in Paris. If the trend continues, it may just be the most equal one yet.
Rationale for excluding data prior 1980: Historical events of global turmoil such as the two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War had significant impacts on the number of athletes able to attend. We chose post-1980 as a period of relative political stability.