Tom and Jerry: Defenders of All Things Right and Good

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Sham And Shame Of The 2008 Olympics

Medals aside, the Chinese gymnastic situation amounts to child abuse.

Even if three of these girls are only 14 or 15 – and an AP report today says one girl is 13 – and it is true that Asian girls are, on average, smaller than Western girls of the same age, there is something seriously wrong with what the Chinese gymnastic association is doing with their female gymnasts.

Shawn Johnson is 4’9” and weighs 90 pounds, and is the smallest and lightest girl on the US team. Standing next to half of the Chinese gymnasts, she looks like she could play linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Three of the Chinese girls weigh under 75 pounds, with one checking in at 68 pounds. That is ridiculously unhealthy, and appears to be a result of malnourishment.

What makes it worse is that it is likely being done deliberately.

Such malnourishment in female gymnastics was common in the 1970’s and 1980’s among the gymnastic teams of the Eastern Bloc countries. The purpose of malnourishment among female gymnasts is two-fold: Number one is that the smaller a girl is, the more easily she can spin, twist, and tumble. However, it goes much beyond that. Number two is to “beat back nature”, intentionally undernourishing female gymnasts to prevent the female body from entering puberty, to avoid the development of hips and breasts that impede spinning, twisting, and tumbling. It is common among these gymnasts to not have their first period until they are in their 20s, a condition known as amenorrhea. This delaying of the onset of menstruation wreaks havoc in a woman’s body in regards to hormonal balance, lean muscle density, skeletal development, and bone density. According to numerous medical studies, women who experience amenorrhea are five times more likely to develop osteoporosis, and are likely to do so at a relatively young age.

The ’72 Olympics and ’76 Olympics were bell-weather meets that would shape women’s gymnastics for years to come. In ’72, the star was 13 year-old Olga Korbut from the USSR. Small and lithe, she was able to do skills that hadn’t been seen before. She did one skill on the beam that was so new that there were no guidelines how to score it. Four years later, though, her body had matured into a 17 year-old’s, and the new star was 14 year-old Nadia Comaneci, coached by Bela Karolyi. The contrast between the two was evident to both the viewing public and, more importantly, to the world’s gymnastic coaches: small, lithe Nadia left now-somewhat-curvy Olga in the dust. And the American team? They looked like normal, if somewhat small, teenagers: they averaged about 20-25 pounds heavier than the Soviets and Eastern Bloc countries. They did not win a single medal.

By the time the next Olympics featuring the US occurred in 1984, Bela Karolyi had defected to the US and brought his training methods with him. He definitely does produce champions. He also produces a long string of girls that develop numerous stress-related injuries and eating disorders. Nadia Comaneci developed an eating disorder between ’76 and ’80, during which her weight fluctuated by 40 pounds. She and Karolyi managed to get her into shape by the ’80 Moscow Olympics, and she won a few medals, but she was no longer capable of doing the skills she had done in ’76. Since the US boycotted those games, those in the West did not see Nadia become just another over-the-hill-at-18 gymnast; she would be forever the little girl who scored perfect 10s.

The ’84 US Olympic women’s team looked remarkably different from the ’76 one, with their average weight about 10 pounds lighter. While Mary Lou Retton was pretty healthy (and naturally small), over the next couple of years, a number of her teammates developed eating disorders and/or suffered a wide range of stress-related injuries. America’s premier sports magazine at the time, Sports Illustrated, took notice: "Turning our teenage girls into skinny little automatons isn’t beating the Russians, it’s joining them." Such complaints fell on deaf ears, though, as the team won silver, and Retton won gold in all-around. This, plus Nadia’s ’76 success plus the judging controversies of the ’88 games, gave Bela Karolyi the stature to impose his blueprint for the ideal gymnast on US women’s gymnastics for the foreseeable future.

The ’88 US team featured some rather "developed" female bodies in 16 year-old Brandy Johnson, 17 year-old Melissa Marlowe and 21 year-old Kelly Garrison, and finished 4th. Individually, they took home only one medal, a bronze in the balance beam by Phoebe Mills, the skinniest girl on the team. The girls were very toned athletes and performed well (Johnson finished 10th in the all-around), but still looked like giants compared to the Russian and Romanian teams, and the opinion (widely championed by Karolyi) was that the US girls didn’t "look the part" of the international elite gymnast, and it affected how they were scored.

The ’92 team was put together explicitly to meet this standard. Kim Kelly, who finished 6th in the Olympic Trials (the top 6 made the Olympic team, and the 7th place girl would be the alternate), was replaced on the team in favor of injured (but small and skinny) Betty Okino of Karolyi’s Gym - primarily, it would seem, because Kelly alone of the US gymnasts had the mature curvy body that the US coaches were trying to move away from. Kelly wasn’t even named as an alternate; that spot was given to another small and skinny gymnast, Michelle Campi, who had a stress fracture in her hip. Nevertheless, USA Gymnastics got the women’s team they wanted: the ’92 US team took the floor in Barcelona looking very much indistinguishable from the wan and sunken-cheeked girls from the former Soviet bloc, and Okino competed despite stress fractures in her spine and a pin in her ankle.

The team finished third, and 15 year-old Shannon Miller won 5 medals, but the reaction among the US media was anything but enthusiastic. In short, they were horrified at what they saw. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe (when he was real journalist, and not the ESPN blowhard he is today) even called for the sport to be abolished. Reaction was strong enough that US gymnastics made nutrition a major part of their program for 1996. Compare pictures of Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, and Kerri Strug from the ’92 and ’96 games: they were allowed to mature into women (albeit very toned and athletic women) and the US team won gold. One thing about that team bugs me, though: is it any coincidence that Karolyi’s two protégés, Strug and Dominique Moceanu, were the most often-injured of the group? I think not.

Most of the gymnastics world followed suit, and the old Eastern bloc methods appeared to die out....with the notable exception of China, the lone remaining communist country of sufficient size to field an elite Olympic team. Not only does this Olympics’ team contain a few members that are reportedly underage, they also look rather obviously undernourished and underdeveloped.

There is precedence to the suspicion that China's Olympic program copied the old Eastern bloc methods. In the 1970's, East Germany came out of nowhere and dominated the women's swimming medal podium. There had never been a country that had an Olympic team come so far so fast. Once the Soviet bloc collapsed, some interesting medical records came into Western hands: the 1976 East German swimmers (primarily, it should be noted, the women) had been a team of walking steriod containers. Some of the US women's 1976 lockerroom anecdotes about the abnormally deep voices and excessive body hair of the East Germans went from "sour grapes" to "supporting evidence".

In 1988, the Chinese women's swim team came out of nowhere to win a host of medals in Seoul. Though the country did not fall apart, some Chinese swimmers did come clean (about 8 years ago) to Western journalists about their institutionalized steriod program (much like the East Germans' of 1976), particularly once they started to bear some of the long term effects of steriod abuse. The Chinese Olympic swimming organization was exposed and abandoned their swimming steriod program, and have disappeared from the medal contention almost as quickly as they appeared.

In addition to this precedent, I have my own two eyes, and all the facts I have mentioned above. I have followed gymnastics closely since 1976, and was on the Notre Dame gymnastics team for awhile until I concluded, after falling asleep studying for the 2nd time during midterms, that engineering and gymnastics don't mix. Should anyone suggest that this post is just American sour grapes, I'll suggest a little comparative viewing: Spend a little time on youtube watching clips from the 1988 women's gymnastics team final (there's about two hours' worth available). Tell me honestly if either the Soviet or the Romanian team (the Gold and Silver medal-winning teams), of which there is evidence that they were being fed little in order to delay the onset of puberty, has more than one (let alone 3 or 4) girls that are as skinny and underdeveloped as the girls on the Chinese team. If you can honestly say "yes", I'll make an appointment with my eye doctor first thing in the morning to correct my vision.

This Olympics was supposed to be China’s "Coming Out" party. From the perspective of women’s gymnastics, it’s a disgrace.

3 Comments:

  • Well said, Jerry!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Saturday, August 16, 2008 1:33:00 AM  

  • Excuse me for posting this four months after the fact, but this is disgusting. Yes, there are problems in gymnastics, but they are not limited to the Chinese athletes. Do you think any of the American gymnasts have their periods yet? If you do, you're kidding yourself.

    Nadia Comaneci never had an eating disorder, she took time off from the sport and gained weight because she ate too much. In fact, Nadia ate better than most people in her country at the time.

    And if you're going to say that Kelly Garrison was the better gymnast because she was older and not as skinny, do your research. Garrison had 22 stress fractures in her back when she retired. Is that better than being skinny? Americans have a long history of abusing their gymnasts, and raising age limits doesn't help. It only prolongs training for athletes who can be considered elite at the age of eleven.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Monday, December 08, 2008 10:02:00 PM  

  • I don't generally bother with responding to anonymous comments, but for comment #2 I'll make an exception.

    Perhaps you should do some research of your own. Nadia did not "take time off" from gymnastics between the '76 and '80 Olympics, she changed coaches (or more accurately, they were changed for her by the Romanian sports authorities). She gained 40 pounds in a year (which points towards an eating disorder) and then lost almost all of it by 1979 once the Karolyis became her coach again. Moreover, she has admitted publicly to struggling with both anorexia and bulimia during her gymnastics career and throughout the '80s. To deny that she ever had an eating disorder is to deny her own words to the contrary.

    As far as Kelly Garrison, I did not say that being older and having a more mature figure made her a better gymnast - in fact, given the premium put on difficult tumbling and acrobatics, it most likely hurt her scores. And yes, I am aware of her injury problems, and am aware that she competed in the '88 games with an injured ankle, which had her pounding the floor with her foot before each event to make it go numb. It has been pointed out by a few commentators that it is inconsistent to praise a male athlete for "playing hurt" and then cry "abuse!" when a female athlete does it. This criticism has merit in Garrison's case, as she was a grown woman of 21 years in '88. However, she - unlike Nadia and countless others - never showed signs of an eating disorder nor has ever claimed to have had one, and she most certainly was never forced by trainers under the watchful eye of government officials to purposefully malnourish herself in order to delay puberty.

    Yes, there has been abuse of gymnasts in the American sports world. There has also been a concerted effort since 1992 to promote healthier eating and training methods. I do not have intimate knowledge of the current US gymnasts' menstrual cycles (or lack thereof), but the US team looked like healthy (if stunningly athletic and toned) young women. The point I was making - one that you seem very determined to miss - is that there is ample evidence to suggest that the Chinese gymnasts are being purposefully, and likely systematically, malnourished with the intent of delaying puberty There is both precedent for it, in China and in other communist countries. The long-term effects of this will be harmful for gymnastics and devastating to these gymnasts.

    Before you declare any more of my posts "disgusting" (under the cloak of anonymity), perhaps you should a) do a little research of your own, so you don't make easily refuted claims like "Nadia Comaneci never had an eating disorder" when she herself has admitted to them publicly, and b) read a little more carefully, so that you don't resort to building strawmen like claiming that I was claiming Garrison's numerous injuries were better than being skinny when I was making no such claim, but making a different point entirely, one which you chose to ignore.

    By Blogger Jerry, at Tuesday, December 09, 2008 12:16:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home