I worry about Olympic gymnasts–particularly females–and perhaps you should too. Here’s why. Much of the supporting content from this entry comes from an article by a near-Olympic gymnast named Rebecca Seal.
Unlike Most Sports, Gymnastics Makes You Less Healthy–Physically
The average age of the women on the US Olympic team is 16. 16! That’s the US, not China. Remember how you were at 16? You were a kid. And guess what? You had probably just finished going through puberty at that point. That’s the natural thing for our bodies to do at 13 or 14 (or 22 for me). Those girls on the Olympic team don’t go through puberty at the biologically correct time because of the combination of training and the lack of body fat.
This delay in puberty results in permanently stunted growth. You don’t need an expert to tell you that, but fortunately I have one at my disposal thanks to the primary article I’m citing: A specialist named Shona Bass noted the following: “I have seen monozygotic identical twins, where one has been a gymnast, who have height differences of between four and six centimetres.”
Last, the physical toll taken by gymnasts’ bodies at such a young age results in permanent damage. You can expect this in any sport–professional marathoners have knee problems when they’re old. Football players have brain damage. Soccer players have bad backs. But at the professional level of those other sports, athletes are adults in their 20s and 30s. These are young girls we’re talking about. Here’s what Rebecca Seal had to say:
Today, a decade after I stopped training, I have only just finished my final course of physiotherapy for hypermobility in a number of joints (developing hypermobile joints means that the supporting structures around the joints, the ligaments, are not strong enough to support the joints themselves, which can be very painful) and damage to my sacroiliac joint in my lower back, which was linked to a twisted pelvis.
There’s no question that the young women who compete at the Olympics are physical specimens. They’re athletes to the extreme. But given they physical toll they incur, I really struggle to condone the sport.
Unlike Most Sports, Gymnastics Makes You Less Healthy–Mentally
The Seal article is from 2005, so it’s a bit dated, but this number is still startling: “A recent USA Gymnastics study revealed that 62 per cent of college gymnasts had some form of disordered eating (compared with only four per cent of the general population) – a greater percentage than in any other sport.”
So…if you choose to be an elite gymnast, you’re increasing the chances of having an eating disorder by 1500%? Hmm…
Not only that, but it pains me to watch these kids fret over every little mistake they make. They’re competing in front of millions of people worldwide in front of judges who are judging them (isn’t that the worst possible thing for a 16-year-old kid?) on every little detail.
Watch their faces when they compete. They’ll start each performance with a fake smile, their face caked in makeup and glitter, and then the smile will vanish as if it was never there. Their face is flat, unexpressive throughout the performance, with the exception of a few choreographed moments when they’re scheduled to smile. Finally, the performance is over, and they run back to their families and judges. They’re never happy. Never satisfied.
These are kids, people. Why do we condone a sport that makes kids feel that way?
Finally, I really worry about the expectations we put on these kids. Think of the most iconic moment in US women’s gymnastics history: Kerri Strug, 1996, needing to land a vault to hand her team the gold.
I’ll post the video below. It’s moving, what Strug did. You can’t help but swell with patriotic pride.
But take a step back and think about what you just witnessed. A young woman who was quite injured was compelled to complete the jump, causing massive damage to her leg. Basically, she did a very stupid thing because the weight of a country was on her shoulders. And it’s not even a real weight–the Olympics don’t actually mean anything to America’s welfare. They’re just entertainment.
So to entertain us and make us feel good about our country taking gold, this young woman broke her body on the vault. That, to me, is really sad.
Do you think about any of these things when you watch Olympic gymnasts?
For my thoughts about the Olympics as meaningless entertainment, see my blog entry about the winter Olympics 2 years ago.