Teenage Olympians go for gold in London 2012

2012's teen athletes. Clockwise from top left: Kirani James, Ellie Simmonds, Ye Shiwen, Kyla Ross © Getty Images

London’s Olympic flame was lit by seven rising stars of British sport. Many more teenagers are competing in the Games – and some have already shocked the world with medal-winning glory.

When the Olympic opening ceremony kicked off on Friday, one big mystery remained unsolved. Who, of the world’s sporting greats, would light the Olympic torch? Would it be legendary boxer Muhammad Ali? David Beckham? Perhaps Olympic hero Steve Redgrave would be given the honour.

The choice was a surprise to everyone. The job of lighting the flame was not given to a famous veteran, but seven teenage athletes. Each was a future star of British sport, nominated by national heroes for their hard work and potential to shine.

The group included 18-year-old runner Katie Kirk, who has already represented Great Britain at Delhi’s Commonwealth Games, and 16-year-old sprinter Desiree Henry. Sailor Callum Airlie saw in his 17th birthday carrying the torch – and just six hours later hopped on a flight to Austria for a world championship.

They are a tiny selection of sport’s young stars. Many athletes competing in London 2012 are under twenty, and some of these are already veterans. Paralympic swimmer Ellie Simmonds, for example, is tipped for big things after winning gold at Beijing 2008 when she was just 13.

Balancing training with teenage trials can be tough. As well as going to school and keeping up with friends, stars like US gymnast Kyla Ross train for 35 hours a week. Diver Alicia Bragg had to be excused from class to hear she had made Team GB, because mobile phones are banned at her school.

Despite obstacles, teens are among the Olympics’ biggest success stories. On Saturday, Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen shocked everyone by taking gold in the 400m Medley, smashing a world record in the process. Astonishingly, she swam the final 50m faster than Ryan Lochte – America’s male gold medal-winner. She is just 16.

In fact, 27 athletes in China’s 49-strong swim team were born after 1990. Many have already been successful: yesterday, teenagers Zhang Yanquan and Cao Yuan claimed gold in the synchronised diving – beating 18-year-old British poster-boy Tom Daley. China’s secret? Targeting children with outstanding physical attributes at a young age, and placing them on intensive training programmes to churn out Olympic champions.

Too much too young?

Not everyone, however, thinks teens should be in the Olympics. Training is lonely and punishing, and failure devastating. Perhaps teenagers should be enjoying their youth, rather than battling these intimidating trials.

Others disagree. Sure, the Olympics is tough – but so is anything worthwhile. The young athletes of the Games are working hard, pushing their potential and facing real failure and triumph. Their London 2012 experience will be exhilarating, rewarding and life-changing – and their talent and effort should be an inspiration to us all.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to be a teenage Olympian?
  2. Should there be a minimum age for participating in the Olympics?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are a young athlete, preparing for your first Olympics in London 2012. Write a short diary entry describing your feelings.
  2. Taking sports seriously takes a lot of time – and often involves making sacrifices. Imagine you need to take some time off school to train for a big sporting competition. Act out the conversation you would have with your headteacher – and try to come to a compromise that means you can studyandtrain.

Some People Say...

“Olympic training? I’d rather hang out with my friends.”

What do you think?

Q & A

All this makes me feel pretty unfulfilled!
It’s easy to feel a little intimidated by the amazing things people have achieved at such a young age. But not all Olympic successes are precocious teenagers. Lizzie Armistead is 23 years old, and clinched a silver medal in Saturday’s women’s cycling. But she was a relative latecomer to the sport – she started when she was 16.
How do these teen stars get involved to such a high level?
Different countries have different systems for cultivating sporting excellence. Chinese sporting authorities, for example, pick out athletes at a young age, and often have them train full-time. In other nations, children will try different sports at school, and if they are interested in pursuing one they might join a club where they can get training and support.

Word Watch

Steve Redgrave
Steve Redgrave is a British rower, often dubbed Britain’s greatest Olympian. He won five gold medals in five consecutive Olympic games – the only athlete to do so in an endurance sport.
Commonwealth Games
The Commonwealth Games is held every four years – two years after the Olympics. All the countries of the Commonwealth – formerly known as the British Commonwealth – compete, and most Olympic sports feature, as well as rugby, netball and lawn bowls.
Ellie Simmonds
Ellie Simmonds won the gold medal in the 100m and 400m freestyle swimming events in the Beijing Paralympics. In the same year, she won the Young Sports Personality of the Year Award, and in 2009 became the youngest person to be awarded an MBE. Simmonds has achondroplasia – a form of dwarfism.
Outstanding physical attributes
Olympic success isn’t just about hard work. Many athletes have unusual physical characteristics that make them particularly good at their sport. Ye Shiwen’s teachers, for example, noticed her particularly big hands, which provide a big advantage in swimming. American swimming champion Michael Phelps, too, has a wingspan bigger than his height, giving him a major boost in the water.

Subjects

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