succumbing to peer pressure

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hey! That's my sport you're talking about!

I can't quite put my finger on what it is about the comments to this blog post that gets my panties all in wad, but I'm guessing it's something along the lines of that old bit about how I can make fun of my family, but you damn well better not. The post is generally about the alleged age of Chinese gymnasts, and the title references a book about how damaging (physically and emotionally) sports like gymnastics and ice skating are/can be. I was a gymnast from ages 4 to 17, started competing at 8 years old, and by high school I was spending about 20 hours a week training or traveling to/from the gym. I have a sort of mixed relationship with the sport, and have certainly done my fair share of criticizing the institution. But let me lay out the things that bother me about the aforementioned comments - 1) perhaps people are just keeping it to themselves, but none of the commenters have referenced a personal history with the sport, and yet all of them speak with this authoritative tone and imply that they know how to 'fix' gymnastics. 2) at least one of the commenters claims that gymnastics is the only Olympic sport that rewards pre-adolescence. I would argue that at the very least diving and ice skating suffer similar problems, though if I really went through a list of Olympic sports I could probably come up with more. I'm not saying this isn't a problem, just that it's unfair to single out gymnastics. 3) we saw articles just like this after Kerri Strug completed her (in)famous vault on an injured leg - it really pisses me off that our five second attention spans mean we only worry about the abuse of young women once every four years. 4) the whole Chinese gymnast age debacle drives me nuts simply because people are claiming they can tell her age by looking at her - while the particular gymnast in question may indeed be under 16, and she certainly does look young, one of the things that happens in any sport when you train at that level is that your body slows down or stops certain processes to allocate resources to your training regimen. Women in the military often stop getting their periods; young athletes often have a very delayed onset of puberty. So it's impossible to claim that by looking at someone you can tell she isn't 16 because she clearly hasn't gone through puberty, when it is equally possible that she is both 16 and has not gone through puberty. Again, I'm not saying that's a good thing, just that it's a nagging detail that bothers me about this whole argument. 5) another commenter worries about the long-term impact of arthritis, etc. from gymnastics. Although I joke that certain joints in my body are older than others, and certainly the daily impact of the sport is punishing, I would argue that being an athlete is a personality type, and if it's not one sport it's another, and doing anything at an intense level is going to leave a lasting mark on your body.

Now, for the sport itself. Yes, certainly, it has it's problems. Gymnastics, ice skating, swimming, diving, and dancing (just off the top of my head) all often involve young women, place pressure on those young women to be perfect, and are plagued by eating disorders and injuries. This is a serious problem and the infrastructure of these sports need to work on better ways to provide more forgiving environments for impressionable young women. But as someone who came through one of those sports relatively unscathed, I would be loathe to argue that we should do away with them entirely, or modify them in such a way that young women no longer compete in them.

I think many of the perfectionist/emotional problems that come along with these sports are a chicken/egg problem - I know that in my case, perfectionism was already a part of a my personality, and it was part of what drew me to more and more competitive gymnastics. Is it a good thing that my sport amplified this aspect of my personality? Probably not. Would I inevitably have ended up participating in some sport with equal intensity? Probably so. The key here is that we need to respect young developing minds and bodies. We don't need more rules/enforcement of arbitrary age cut points, we need better monitoring of coaches who force public weigh-ins and look the other way when athletes are clearly abusing their bodies. We need fewer public accolades for coaches like Bela Karolyi who have a well-documented history of emotional abuse (and who set the tone for any coach who hoped to produce a 'champion' throughout the 80s and 90s). We shouldn't be up in arms because one of the Chinese gymnasts might be 13, we should be upset about a culture that takes three year olds away from their families and devalues daughters so much that when one of these athletes wants to come home her parents tell her no, she is not welcome here, she must instead become an Olympic champion because that will bring honor to the family and elevate their social status.


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