EYESHENZHEN  /   Opinion

Those female athletes who push boundaries

Writer: Liu Minxia  |  Editor: Jane Chen  |  From: Shenzhen Daily  |  Updated: 2021-07-26

As a middle-aged woman, I have a natural affinity towards older female athletes like Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitina and Shenzhen's Liu Hong in the Tokyo Olympics, and their life stories of breaking age and stereotype boundaries are inspiring in more than one way.

As a gymnast in a sport dominated largely by teenagers, Chusovitina, born in 1975, was already at a relatively advanced age in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when she first caught my attention with her unusual reason to compete.

Now, almost two times older than some of the other gymnasts in Tokyo, 46-year-old Chusovitina competed yesterday for her eighth Olympics, breaking her own record for the most Olympic Games a gymnast has competed in and wrapping up a career that has spanned three decades.

Her long, long story began 30 years ago at the 1991 World Championships when she burst onto the international stage as an alternate to replace her injured teammate Yelena Grudneva, earning three medals, including a gold.

Following a flourishing and fruitful decade of competitions, she meant to retire after the Sydney 2000 Games. At 25, she had already made history by competing in Sydney after giving birth as there are fewer than 10 artistic gymnasts in Olympic history to have done so.

But destiny didn't allow her to. In 2002, her son Alisher was diagnosed with leukemia and the costly medical expenses compelled Chusovitina to once again begin competing in international competitions.

It was a success. Not only was her comeback successful, more importantly, so was her son's treatment. In 2008, Alisher was declared healthy and cancer-free and just months later, Chusovitina won her first individual Olympic medal in Beijing.

That was another occasion when people thought she might retire, and she did announce her retirement after finishing a disappointing fifth in London 2012. Indeed, with a fat trophy cabinet and five skills named after her in the International Gymnastics Code of Points, she had achieved enough to happily retire. But she soon changed her mind.

Both in Beijing and then at London 2012, she competed under the flag of Germany as a way to thank the country for the medical treatment her son received there.

At Rio 2016, Chusovitina represented Uzbekistan again, finishing seventh in the vault in an event won by Simone Biles – 22 years her junior and two years older than her son.

Despite being as old – or older – as some of her competitors' parents, Chusovitina appeared at Olympics yet again yesterday in Tokyo.

Winning a medal or not, to be fair though, is not important any more for her, after demonstrating 30 years of perseverance and excellence and constantly inspiring average women like me.

Just like Chusovitina, Chinese race walker Liu, who took up the sport at age 13, is also a mother returning to international competitions.

After becoming the Rio 2016 Olympic race walking champion, the then 29-year-old Liu retired to get married and give birth.

It's quite imaginable that Liu faced more challenges than most women do when coming off a two-year maternity break. While reshaping herself physically, she managed to bring her young daughter with her while training, and enlist her husband Liu Xue to be her coach.

On top of arduous training that saw her walk 190 km a week and wear out 20 pairs of new shoes a year, she won the 20 km race walking title at the World Championships in 2019 and also set a new 50 km world record.

This mother of a 3-year-old had set her sights to defend her Olympic title in Tokyo, but when the Games was postponed last year, she struggled whether she should give up on her fourth Olympics for the sake of her family.

At 34, Liu Hong seems set to retire after the Tokyo Olympics, just as Chusovitina had said she would do.

While gender equality improves on many fronts including the Olympics, as exemplified by the International Olympic Committee's observation that Tokyo was set to become the most gender-balanced Olympics ever, with nearly 48.8 percent women athletes, up from Rio's 45.22 percent, female athletes keep breaking the unwritten rules of sports in their own ways. Regardless of how their sports careers end, though, their legendary achievements will endure.

(The author is a business editor with Shenzhen Daily.)