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?
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