How old was Kim Gwang Suk, really?

Tiny Kim Gwang-Suk from North KoreaThe question fascinates gymnastics fans.

Kim, from North Korea, was one of the best barworkers at the 1992 Olympic Games. The 1991 World Bars Champion performed a killer reverse-hecht, Counter-Kim combination. If not for a small step on her double layout dismount, she might have won gold in 1992.

Kim Gwang Suk, 1992 Olympic Games Event Finals, Uneven Bars:

As it happens, she was fourth. Then she disappeared.

Too bad she shouldn’t have been there in the first place, or so it’s said.

From Wikipedia:

Due to her small stature and the fact that the North Korean Gymnastics Federation listed her given age as 15 for three consecutive years, questions arose about Kim’s age and eligibility for senior competition. While her real age was never ascertained, it was discovered that the Federation had submitted inconsistent birth year information for her at least three times at three separate international competitions. As a result of the falsification, the North Korean women’s gymnastics team was banned from the 1993 World Championships.

Today, Northernriver at Difficulty Plus Execution reports that after all these years, Kim has resurfaced, to carry the Olympic torch as it travels through her home country.

She certainly seems to have grown. And she’s got front teeth, something she didn’t have in 1991 or 1992 (Officials said her teeth were knocked out in a training accident; Bela Karolyi thought otherwise and told reporters it was because she looked about 10.)

But how old was she, really? I say at least 14 in Barcelona. Yes, she was small. But the real reason is that even if you start gymnastics as soon as you can walk, you’re not going to be Olympic-caliber before age 11-12 — at the very earliest.

Even the best start somewhere. Take Ashley Priess for example, training at age five.

The earliest video of Kim Gwang Suk comes from 1987, at a junior competition called Druzhba, five years before Barcelona.

Kim Gwang Suk, 1987 Druzhba, balance beam:

At the very, very least, she could be eight or nine there, which would make her 13 or 14 in Barcelona. Because she couldn’t be any younger and be throwing those skills in 1987.

A fluff piece from Korean Japanese television shows more close-ups of Kim.

Maybe I’m missing the point, which is that even if she had been age eligible for 1992, the North Koreans were wrong, or sloppy, to put her age as 15 for three consecutive years (In its 1991 coverage of the World Championships, ABC lists Kim as 16 years old and 4’4″ tall.)

It’s too bad, because she deserved the titles she won, and she probably could have continued and legitimately won quite a few more.

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8 Responses to “How old was Kim Gwang Suk, really?”

  1. TCO Says:

    You’rhinking too hard about this. The most likely and obvious answer is that she was under-age and the commies cheated to get her in.

  2. George N Says:

    And I’m sure that her family got to enjoy a much better life because of the same “cheating commie” bastards.

    And I for one would like to take the time out to thank the same cheating commies for allowing me to see such brilliance in my sport.

  3. Mike Says:

    Wow! I thought I remembered most routines, but I don’t remember this one. Very impressive. What would her A-score be in today’s code of points? That Counter-Kim looks incredibly difficult. I’ve never seen that before. I wish more gymnasts were doing creative and difficult elements like that on bars.

    On the age scandal, she does look pretty young, and that’s very strange that they would make an error three different times. And is gymnastics gold really worth removing a child’s teeth to fake her age? I hope Bela Karolyi was wrong about that.

  4. Jen Says:

    @ Mike:

    I don’t imagine Bela was trying to imply that they removed her teeth to fake her age. I think he was pointing out the fact that her milk teeth (or “baby” teeth) were falling out because she was so young. Generally, people don’t tend to have milk teeth at age 15, and he obviously didn’t believe that they had been knocked out in a training accident.

  5. J in Kyoto Says:

    Just FYI: That last video (the “fluff piece”) is actually a decent piece of reporting from Japan, not Korea. The reporter comments on Kim’s weaknesses as well as her strengths and asks pretty typical questions about her debut in the Olympics like, “How confident are you?”

  6. A T Says:

    I’m in dental school and people tend to loose their “baby” front teeth at the age of 7-8. If they have seen her holding the torch at an older age with her front teeth, there are things like removable partial dentures, “flippers,” bridges, and implants that people get to replace teeth that are missing in esthetic areas (and can look very real). I mean who wants to walk around with teeth missing from an accident. Most people who have accidents with their front teeth get the teeth replaced with fake teeth.

  7. Gary Says:

    She probably disappeared because she grew several inches and could not still compete at the same level.

  8. Tia Says:

    Kim Gwang Suk was born in 78, she started competing in major championships at the elite level when she was 9 in 87. In fact her bar and balance beam routines in 87 are on youtube. She was one awesome 9 year old.

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