At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the size of the Chinese gymnasts caused international controversy. With the average height of the winning Chinese team at 4 feet 9 inches, many countries accused the Chinese of cheating by using gymnasts who were too young to compete. Being of short stature does provide certain advantages in gymnastics, but winning depends on much more than a gymnast’s height.
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Center of Gravity
Being shorter to the ground gives a gymnast an advantage in balance because the gymnast has a lower center of gravity. The center of gravity is the midpoint of the body, generally one inch below the naval when a gymnast stands with her arms at her side. The lower the center of gravity is to the base of support, the better the balance will be. The base of support is the body parts and apparatus supporting the gymnast’s weight. For example, when two gymnasts walk across a balance beam, the shorter gymnast’s lower center of gravity gives her a balance advantage.
Height affects a gymnast’s ability to rotate her body. A study published in the July 2003 issue of “Sports Biomechanics,” the journal of the International Society of Biomechanics in Sports, found that smaller gymnasts, with high strength-to-mass ratios, were better equipped to perform skills involving whole-body rotations, both forward and backward, and in twisting motions. Larger gymnasts could not match the rotational performance of the smaller ones.
In general, shorter gymnasts are more muscular than taller gymnasts are. Being short and muscular provides a gymnast with a strength advantage. Shorter, muscular gymnasts can accomplish higher-level vaults because they travel down the runway with more power. Taller gymnasts must compensate for their lack of strength on the floor and vault with floor, bar and beam skills that display grace and accentuate their longer lines.
U.S. gymnasts are growing taller and finding ways to adjust their skills appropriately for their height. The top gymnasts often used to stand shorter than 5 feet. Nadia Comaneci , the 1976 Olympic all-around champion, was just 4 feet 10 inches tall and 1984 champion Mary Lou Retton was 4 feet 9 inches tall. Speaking to "The Miami Herald” in the early 1990s, Comaneci and Retton’s coach Bela Karolyi said the ideal size for a gymnast was 4 feet 7 inches to 4 feet 10 inches. In 2008, when the U.S. team took the silver medal, only one gymnast on the U.S. team stood below 5 feet. In fact, the all-around champion, Nastia Liukin, was 5 feet 3 inches tall.