The Olympics and the Woman-Child

Amid the speedskating, downhill skiing and bobsledding, there is another Olympic race going on that gets less coverage: the race against puberty.

She is the largest ticket-seller of the Olympics, the tiny woman-child. Dressed up and often sexualized, she twitches her hips and shows off her inner thighs to earn herself some gold or silver. Oh yeah, and she’s also competing as one of the greatest athletes in the world.

In the Winter Olympics she is often a figure skater, and in the Summer Olympics she is often a gymnast. She is different from her male counterparts. For male gymnasts and even many male figure skaters, the test at the Olympics is primarily a test of strength. For women it is flexibility and stunts, so before her body gains weight, she needs to win that medal.

The exploitation of little girls in sports that require extreme flexibility has been occurring for a long time, but it was not until 1992 that it became truly a public issue. Coaches, nutritionists and even spectators were concerned by the severe decline in height and weight that they noticed in the U.S. team.

On average in 1992, the U.S. women were 16 years old, 4 ft. 9, and 83 lbs. One gymnast weighed only 69 lbs. Only 24 years earlier, the Olympic champion in women’s gymnastics was 25 years old, 5 ft. 5, and 120 lbs.

Olympic and international gymnastics and figure skating have been linked to eating disorders, absent and delayed menstrual periods, premature osteoporosis, and repeated stress fractures.

Because in many countries all children recruited to be Olympic athletes live in training facilities without their parents, there is sometimes little accountability on their behalf. Over the years, allegations by athletes against their gymnastic coaches have included physical abuse, severe caloric restriction and taunting.

One practice that hasn’t been proven but has been alleged on numerous occasions is that of abortion doping. Abortion doping consists of a female athlete purposefully conceiving and then aborting just before or after the Olympics. Pregnancy is not forbidden by the IOC, and provides the body with increased muscular strength and athletic performance. The practice, if in existence, is untraceable by normal substance tests. But so far, no athlete has come out to say that yes, it happens, and it happened to her.

Many athletes have been accused of abortion doping, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe. For gymnasts and figure skaters, however, the practice is allegedly not always their choice: according to some sources, young women in training are told and even forced to conceive with their coaches near the time of the Olympics in order to abort later.

Now, take a breath, and don’t get too upset with me yet. I took gymnastics as a child and know firsthand that it is usually nothing like this, that it offers a lot of valuable lessons, that it requires athleticism and dedication, that it can be a valid sport far past puberty. (I stepped on a staple at practice once, but really, that was my fault.) The kind of abuse mentioned above only relates to a few elite gymnasts in a few countries during a few eras.

While these harsh allegations have not been proven, they have also not been dis-proven. That certainly doesn’t mean they are true; it only means accountability is too slim in some countries to know about what is happening to these very young athletes, especially in their first training years. And why not? How could these allegations have been brought before the public, and before the Olympic Committee, without serous investigations as a result?

The Olympic qualifying age for these girls has been changed to 16 years to protect them from abuse and exploitation. But as each Olympic Games presents new controversies over the treatment of young female athletes, the question remains: what more could be done to save these little girls?

Am I being too fear-mongering?
What would you add about the ethics of sports? Gymnastics and figure skating aren’t the only sports that require crazy things. How about little boys making weight for wrestling?

Further resources:

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters
by Joan Ryan
Written before the time of healthier examples like Shawn Johnson, this landmark book exposed many of the practices mentioned above. It has received criticism for making the two sports look bad through sensationalism, but as she is only writing in regards to elite, Olympic-level competition, her thoughts are relevant here.

And to read an example of the subtle (or not-so-subtle) sexualization of young figure skaters as mentioned above, read this article from Slate, or just the headline:
Sexy Gypsies on Ice: Russian dynamos and American flirts fight for Olympic gold

7 Responses to “The Olympics and the Woman-Child”
  1. Katinka says:

    I’m glad you paused for a breather towards the end.

    But, a couple of thoughts:

    This isn’t just an Olympic phenomenon, so it’s unfair to highlight it as if that’s the case–although I do think it’s appropriate to have laws and regulations that contain some of the exploitation of children that would go on otherwise, such as raising the age necessary to compete as an Olympic athlete, dietary monitoring, bone-density tests, etc.

    But we find images of the “woman-child” all over: from Hannah Montana and her 6-year-old wannabes, to the girls trafficked into sex slavery, to the little outfits sold at Target so that an 8-year-old can dress like an 18-year-old. It’s not just a problem of men exploiting women, either. Women dress their own children up in these outfits, they take them to concerts, they teach them to dance suggestively, to blow kisses to their boyfriends. We live in a hyper-sexualized culture.

    Other countries (like Russia, China) might have different reasons for exploiting young athletes, like the goal of bringing honor to the group and extreme investment in those goals. But whatever the reason, we do have a responsibility, in all areas of our lives, to seek to protect children, because they are not making decisions for themselves and rely on the decisions of others.

  2. Joanna says:

    Yes, I agree completely. If I could have written more I would, but since I’m focusing on the Olympics I left it there. It is a cultural issue, at least here in the States, and a moral one that goes far beyond sports. Romania circa 1970 is a good example of when it becomes a political issue.

    Raising the age will probably do very little good, since it is easy to manipulate papers when the government is on the side of the coach or athlete. I think that is particularly sad for the athlete. He Kexin in 2006 worked her whole childhood for a medal that many people in other countries now believe she didn’t deserve. Physical tests might prove more successful.

    You’re right: this is definitely not only an Olympics issue. I’m sure as we enter more topics it will come up again quite often.

  3. Darrell says:

    Great atheletes have pushed their bodies to the limits and then found new limits since the Plains of Marathon. The great marathoners suffer in ways that are unimaginable to most of us. They drive themselves to actually damage and destroy their own bodies, but ,to them, it’s worth it. Here, however, we are talking about something quite different. I agree with Katinka’s comment that the “women-child” is found all over. I like what Katinka had to say about sexualizing children in our hyper-sexualized culture. I take issue though with any suggestion that regulations and new restrictions will stop or even help it. I add something of an explanation from my perspective. This sexualization of children is part of a deliberate, depraved plan which includes incest, adultery, and pedophilia packaged in pretty ribbons and sold to humanity for its own destruction. You may think this is a stretch but it goes to why Islam is portrayed as such a threat that it must be destroyed. This is a deliberate plan to destroy God and the things of God. Look at “The Vagina Monologues” as an example of how this culture views children as just something to be used and exploited, i.e. a commodity. In that play a 12 year old girl describes how her mother entrusted her to the care of a beautiful 24 year old woman who betrayed her trust by having sex with her. That is but one example of our depravity. Where is the outrage? This is also part of an effort to destroy marriage and the family. Why then should we care about these little Olympic pixies being exploited for money and fame. Obviously because we realize that we are human beings created in the image of God for his purposes. No amount of legislation created by corrupt politicials who are themselves the worst offenders and the most hypocritical abusers among us will solve the problem. We could solve it by mass human action if we wanted. Stop watching and at least vote with your pocket book. Stop buying at Aberchrombie and Fitch and Calvin Klein and many others. Stop watching the plays and movies. But then the winter games start tomorrow so I think I will get a cup of Joe The Barbarian’s delicious coffee and get ready.

  4. Michael says:

    These are all great thoughts. I totally agree with Katinka’s comment about women sexualizing their daughters with outfits and behaviors. Even this, however, is ultimately the product of exploitation by men. Our culture demands that women behave in a way that is sexually satisfying to men. Society determines a woman’s value by the degree to which she can accomplish this. Those values are then passed down to women, not only from men but also from other women who have accepted the male-dominated system in place.

  5. Darrell says:

    Yes, Michael this is a society of women who must still appeal to men and are exploited even by their mothers for that purpose, but now Satan has expanded his interests to include little boys. Anyway all this leads to a hatred of and disrespect for men that is constantly portrayed by the buffoons on TV.

    • Katinka says:

      Darrell, I appreciate you bringing the eternal perspective–God’s perspective–into the discussion, because as you said, it’s at the root of the problem. No, laws and legislation won’t solve problems, but since the Fall they have been put in place to protect…to provide justice and peace. And no, they don’t do it perfectly–only Redemption does that–but they’re there to help sustain the good and contain the evil, just like the laws of nature and conscience.

      I think that one way, besides lobbying and protesting–both of which are necessary–we can work to counteract the sexualization and exploitation of children is to love God as we raise our families, teaching our children not to believe the lies of the world, setting an example in our own marriages and friendships, and helping them interpret what they see in the media so that they can see the difference between what God says about humanity and what society says. Just some thoughts.

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