I Worry About Female Olympic Gymnasts

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! 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. 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 have incredible physical prowess. 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%? That’s devastating.

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.

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. Also, I think there’s a great comment below about young men (and women) who play American football–I really worry about them too, especially the long-term impact on their brains through the frequent helmet-to-helmet contact.

26 thoughts on “I Worry About Female Olympic Gymnasts”

  1. No, I do not.

    However, I have to contend that I don’t think these young ladies realize the risk. Yet at the same time, there is risk in almost any sport as you imply. If we focus on the risks, then we overlook the rewards. These women cherish this sport, as much as, if not more than you may cherish soccer.

    Dominique Moceanu and Dominique Dawes are perfect examples.
    I will start with Moceanu. Beautiful, graceful, dedicated and headstrong, she is grace incarnate. Per Wikipedia, of Romanian descent, she was part of the team that won the 1996 Gold medals. She lives and breathes the sport.

    For many women, especially in the former Soviet block, this is everything to them. No sacrifice is big enough for them to quit. Granted some of this is instilled by parents.

    Moceanu herself triumphed despite several injuries. What would be of those athletes who let an injury deter them? Similarly, although heartfelt, these talented people are not necessarily dwelling on those risks. My mom used to say, if there was a vaccine for everything, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have eliminated all danger in life.

    Similarly in other sports, like tennis, many also start very young: Arantxa Sanchez, Gabriela Sabatini, Martina Navratilova, Ana Kournikova, among many other ladies started as little girls in that sport.

    Also, there are other sports that are just as risky. You mentioned a few. Rugby is another. XGames are another group. And I happen to like to watch the XGames and like snowboarding.

    Is it entertaining, absolutely. But is that the sport’s whole purpose? I would highly doubt these athletes would contend that their sole goal is to entertain.

    By the way, Moceanu recently found out she has a sister who is also an aspiring gymnast.

    To these athletes, this sport is a lifestyle, a vocation, practically everything.

    For others, namely Chinese ladies, it’s an opportunity to see the world and maybe even defect from tyrannical governments.

    I myself love Gymnastics and am fascinated by the skill involved.

    On a final note, remember also that these ladies go onto other things like Cirque du Soleil, movie roles/stunts, or even teaching this beautiful sport to other young ladies.

    Dawes went on to be the President of the Women’s Sports Federation, also according to Wikipedia. She is also the first female to have been part of 3 teams that received medals.

    I think these rewards aside from the entertainment value as well as empowering women heavily outweighs possible risks.

      • Not to justify what happened to her but many women go through eating disorders and verbal abuse. Having overcome that makes her that much stronger a person. There are studies that in fact show that women who play sports are less likely to go through that. (NIKE ad)

        • I mistyped the parenthetical so I will continue. Body image issues tend to stem from events happening way before a female competes. Moceanu also touches on her parents, sorry had to mention that since I have also read her interviews. Her parents gave away her sister which also affected her later in life.

  2. Interesting topic! I am actually pretty torn about this type of thing. I LOVE athletes in the sense that I am constantly amazed by the human body and our ability to push it to the limits and define new standards. I love watching people at that high of a level (Olympics) and know that they have literally mastered their sport. (Just like it’s amazing to watch someone speak on a topic they clearly fully understand.)

    But it also continually makes me sad that humans set out to destroy their bodies (most sports, if you’re at an Olympic level, you have or will cause permanent damage) for the sake of money or entertainment. And yet, there are so many other reasons to do and the personal achievement and life lessons that come from sports and goal-setting and discipline are not to be under-estimated. And who’s to say I am doing any better by sitting at a desk most of the day? (In fact, there are multiple studies out there right now saying that I am destroying my body with an officey job.)

    Overall, I think it’s a toss up. Do I worry about them like you do? Yes. Do I worry about a lot of things that are not my business or concern? Probably. Is the stress of the life of a young gymnast better or worse than my day-to-day stresses and physical pains? I wouldn’t even know where to begin to set the rubric on how to judge that.

    In other news, this guy is my new favorite athlete (and maybe personal hero). Unconventional, but arguably at the top of his “game”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YClou5Saj78&feature=player_embedded

    • Emma–You present some great points on both sides of the fence here. I definitely see your point (and Neil’s) about the joy and awe of watching the best of the best in sports (thanks to training, practice, and physical prowess). And I definitely agree that sports give us so much to learn (although I would say that there are more emotionally healthy ways to learn through sports than try to be an Olympic athlete).

      Ha ha…that guy is awesome! Thank you for sharing that video. He’s a bit like a little kid (“Look at this! Over here! Look at what I can do!”), but I think that’s a very good thing for someone his age. To have that eagerness, that excitement for life–that’s awesome.

      • Oh absolutely there are healthier ways to learn. I wouldn’t ever want anyone I know to compete at that level, because yikes. So there’s that.

        (But I also don’t want anyone I know to be in the CIA but I am glad we have it.)

  3. I have to agree with you when it comes to olympics gymnasts, and particularly females. Anytime you have 14 and 16 year old competing in the olympic games, I do worry. Clearly these athletes have been trained from a VERY young age, and probably at the encouragement of their parents, before they know any better. And I can only imagine how their bodies suffer. Especially considering that all this intense training is occurring while they are still in the delicate stages of adolescent growth.

    However, having not read your olympic article from 2 years ago until now, I have to take exception with your thoughts on olympic athletes in general. Personally, I look forward to both the winter and summer olympics more than almost any other sporting event. I don’t think too much about patriotism, although I do of course root for American athletes for the most part! The reason I watch the olympics is to see the elite-of-the-elite, the best-of-the-best perform in events that are rarely televised on the day-to-day basis (sorry for the excess hyphen use!). I don’t put too much behind how the olympics “lifts the spirits of our country” or whatever, although I do think this does carry some weight for some folks. I just enjoy watching elite athletes put each other to the test against the best in the world. How much different is that, than say, the World Cup, of which I know you are a huge fan?

    • Neil–I actually agree with your main point, that it’s cool to see the best of the best perform in rarely televised events. It’s entertainment at it’s best–it’s a competitive reality TV show.

      That’s a great point about the World Cup. It’s different, but just barely. I’m a big fan of the World Cup because you get to see the best players in the world play in the unique styles of each country. I think that’s cool. To a certain extent, the media spoon-feeds us the idea that those players are playing for their countries, and that’s the element I worry about. It’s just entertainment. The players are playing because they love the game and they love to win. It doesn’t mean anything if Spain beats the Netherlands. It doesn’t make Spain a better country than the Netherlands.

      And yet in the Olympics, those ideas are really taken up a notch. The media really pushes the idea that these athletes are competing for America and that it means something if America wins or loses. I think that’s misleading.

      Honestly, I wish that the Olympians weren’t divided by country. Why do the country divisions matter? Maybe it’s better entertainment that way.

      • I love that it is by country. The Olympics is literally the only time I can think of where I feel a part of the planet, a global citizen, where I feel like I have something in common with most other countries. And one of the few times where I feel a sense of united national pride (vs partisan politics, etc).

        I agree that the outcomes don’t matter, but when else do we come together to do anything? If people take it too seriously, that’s a shame. But I don’t know if eliminating countries would help that or not.

        • Emma–Well, this is a concern I have for sports in general, not just the Olympics. Some fans treat sports as if they’re bigger than entertainment. I guess in the end it doesn’t really affect me, so I shouldn’t care–if people want to think of sports as more than just entertainment, that’s their choice.

          In the coming weeks when you’re watching the Olympics, pay attention to the times that you feel a swell of patriotism. Examine that feeling, that moment, and what caused it. Why do you feel that way in that moment? Do you really feel like that athlete is representing you or your country?

  4. I’ve always been fascinated by gymnastics. Aside from figure skating, it’s really the only Olympic sport I care to watch. At the same time, I’m also appalled by what I’ve heard and read about the inside scoop of this sport. I know it’s just a TV show, but “Make it Or Break It” on ABC family gives you a good idea of their struggles. (It’s kind of a teeny-bopper show, but I like it anyway!) One of the gymnasts on the show finds out that she has a heart condition and that continuing her dream of training for the Olympics means risking her life. So of course she continues training. They have covered eating disorders, physical and mental abuse, injuries, relationships; the girls are strictly forbidden from dating and I bet that reflects real life. I’m amazed by the athleticism this sport requires, but I also feel bad for them on a personal level because their bodies and minds will suffer for the rest of their lives.

  5. Excellent points, Jamey. Competitive gymnastics creates terrible pressure for girls to retain childlike bodies and push themselves to punishing limits. That contributes to eating disorders, stunted development, and physical and psychological damage. It’s a pity strong female bodies are no longer as prized as light female bodies. That said, when humans feel passionate about accomplishing something unique, I find no fault with obsessive self-sacrifice.

    Becoming an author has cost me years of lost sleep, eye pain, hand pain, and likely contributed to a herniated disc that damaged my foot. The global trek I did during my transition to a writing career carried greater risks: I was drugged and robbed on a train, sexually assaulted, and food-poisoned. In return for my sacrifices, I’ve received the life I dreamed of: independent, creative, and filled with purpose. But I admit I made those tradeoffs as an informed adult.

    Most Olympic gymnasts start extreme training as children, which is unfortunate. But waiting until they’re old enough to make informed choices would mean waiting until they’re too old to compete. That’s why it’s critical for parents to recognize what their children truly want. Many parents push children to fulfill their own lost dreams. That’s the most damaging sacrifice of all.

    When Kerri Strug clinched the gold, it was both heart-breaking and inspiring. Perhaps it was wrong. However, Olympic athletes are diplomatic banners of goodwill for our country. We’ll never know how many foreign allies we make and enemies we win over, when U.S. teens show a commitment to excellence and teamwork. Their peacetime sacrifices might be less weighty, but are no less significant than the sacrifices of wartime soldiers, who are also too young. I’ll continue to celebrate the achievements of these gymnasts, even as I ask whether there are better ways to mitigate the human costs you’ve described.

    • Cara,

      Thanks for your thoughts. These are all really interesting. I hadn’t thought about the toll it takes on anyone to go all-in for something they’re passionate about–that’s very true. And I think you make a great distinction between an adult making that choice for themselves and an adult making that choice for a child (or an adult letting a child make that choice when they don’t fully understand the consequences).

      I don’t remember the part of your book when the train robbery or the sexual assault happened–I’m so sorry to hear that. Where are those stories in the book?

      I don’t necessarily agree with your last paragraph, but I respect your opinion.


      • I struggled a bit with wording that last paragraph. I don’t mean to say that busting a hamstring is as big a sacrifice as giving one’s life, but rather that it’s possible that the more friends we make in peacetime, the more support we may have in preventing or defending wars that lead to lost lives. I believe that the more that Americans travel and spread goodwill, the less people hate us. I understand why you might disagree that the Olympics can mitigate or prevent war, as such effects can’t be measured, but I just wanted to clarify.

        I was drugged and robbed on a train when I left Italy. As for the sexual assault, I neither want to overstate nor understate this, but when I was in Greece a man exposed himself and masturbated in front of me. While that event from my book was not a full-on rape, once when I was traveling in Mexico a man did physically grab me and attempt to rape me. In high school, I was drugged and date-raped. While these events were not all created equal, they were all sexual assaults and as such were all frightening and emotionally haunting. Travel may have put me at more risk, but I still support solo female travel because the risks can be mitigated.

        • I think the side of me that likes quantitative data struggles with the unquantifiable aspect of peacetime friendships…but I like the idea. I like the idea of spreading goodwill. I think one could argue that American superiority in the Olympics might have the opposite effect, but maybe not.

          I think the only thing I, as a male, can say to your second paragraph is: I’m sorry. Just as Olympic athletes represent their countries by default, I (and other men) represent all men by default. I’m sorry, for all of us, and I applaud your willingness to share so that other women can find the strength to open up.

          In case Cara inspires other women through these posts, you can contact her through her website: https://www.caralopezlee.com/

          • You’re very generous, Jamey, and I appreciate that. But I don’t believe that innocent men need ever apologize for the behavior of criminal men. I find it important not to categorize: ie, “all men,” “all Americans,” “all Mexicans,” etc. I see how that might fly in the face of my comment about representing one’s country. Maybe the difference is that some people volunteer to represent the U.S, while most people don’t volunteer to represent every member of their genetic group.

            (p.s. – Thanks for mentioning my site!)

  6. I can’t think of any other cases where the indoctrination of youth to this degree is considered acceptable, much less condoned. I’d put it on par with people who put their babies, infants, toddlers etc in beauty pageants. I make the association because even if you compete at 16, it means you probably started gymnastics by six or eight, or even earlier. Even if you’d say that a 16 year old can make their own decisions (which American society doesn’t say), I don’t believe it’s an honest/informed choice if they’ve been driven to compete this way since before they could ride a bike.

    My perspective is (admittedly) based on the culture of an aging world though. During the Renaissance (I think the Olympics were on hiatus then), people could be married as young as 12, which wasn’t a huge deal, because you may only live to 35. Now that we’re living into our 80s and 90s, we write off everything before 18 or so to “learning the ropes” of life. My point being that perhaps we (I) erroneously discount the perspectives of people in their second decade (10-19).

    But, I don’t understand professional competitive sports either. I understand the interest and benefits of PLAYING any sport, at any age. I understand the benefits of teamwork and the positive association between dedication and performance. But I don’t understand how any person would want to define themselves (professionally) based on your their last physical performance, or in comparison against another person/persons/team. I can’t get interested because players perform, and teams win and lose entirely independent of me. Good for them that they compete, and that they win. But, for the most part, I can’t find a way to feel like it matters to me. I’m glad when the cardinals win the world series, because it makes other people happy. But I don’t get it.

    (These thoughts are more stream of conscious, but are all inspired by this post).

    • Great points, Red. Glad you brought up competitiveness and teamwork. While I admire team spirit and competitive spirit, I don’t always relate to them on a personal level. My sports interests have revolved around running, skiing, biking, hiking, and other activities in which I didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of never being good enough for the team. Come to think of it, my greatest passions in life lean toward solo effort. Not that I don’t like people. I do. Which is why I prefer the idea of “a rising tide lifts all boats” more than “competition leads to excellence,” though I recognize how the latter can work for some.

    • Red–Really great thought here. I hadn’t thought about how much younger those women must be when they start competing professionally, nor did I think about how our perception of age has changed over time.

      I can definitely relate to what you’re saying about professional sports. Like you, I don’t get it, and for the most part I’m glad that sports make people happy, even if they think of them as more than entertainment. I think there’s a lot of anguish and even hate that professional sports instill in people when they reach a certain level of fandom–I’m not a fan of that. That’s scary. It’s almost on the same level as religious fanatics.

  7. Sorry but most of those girls look fat in the legs and thighs like not what I would consider thin. Plus that looks more like fat then muscle!

  8. Jamie, this is an old post and I’ve held off reading it because I expected it to make me feel bad. And it did. I love watching the gymnastics at the Olympics. The strength, the focus, the capabilities of these young people amaze me and make me feel very emotional in a way that team sports do not. Floor exercises in particular really amaze me and I literally dream about being able to do that, which is amusing for someone who can’t even snap her fingers. LOL

    Do you feel the same way about teen boys playing high school football? Young men playing college football? Adults playing pro football? They commonly die in their 40s from the extensive, repeated brain injuries they suffer. Teen players drop dead, on and off the field, every year from heart and brain injuries. Especially at the college level, players are exploited by universities that make millions from the destruction of their player’s bodies, usually while failing to provide them with a real education. It looks like the worst form of indentured servitude to me… coaches and universities making millions so the fans can cheer and alumni get drunk while players get very little and suffer all the pain.

    I am a pacifist and I abhor ritualized violence, which football epitomizes (except perhaps hockey, which might be slightly worse). I am also bisexual and do not like the homophobia that seems rampant in most men’s team sports (with a few incredibly rare exceptions in football in the last year or two; society really IS changing on that score, in the best way!)

    Anyway, these young men destroy their brains, their knees, their backs all for your entertainment. Is that right? I think it’s worse than gymnastics; while gymnastics definitely messes these women up in terms of height and perhaps eating disorders, those things can be dealt with or cured. Brain damage cannot. Being 2″ shorter than your twin doesn’t kill you at age 43.

    Football should be banned at the high school and college level, IMO. If adults want to destroy their brains, that is their informed choice, and at least pro players are compensated somewhat fairly. I still do not find it entertaining to watch men bash each other’s brains. (I don’t like boxing, wrestling, or bull fighting either; I’m sure you’re not surprised. Olympic diving, sprinting, figure skating, equestrian events… can’t get enough of those!)

    If you worry about female Olympic gymnasts, do you worry about the males in the same sport? Why not? What’s your favorite Olympic sport?

    • Julia: Thanks for your comment, as you made a GREAT comparison to football. I do enjoy watching football, but I completely agree. More and more research shows that terrible impact football has on people’s brains, so every time a football player quits the game (this has made the headlines several times recently), I applaud their decision.

      I can honestly say that when I wrote this post, I didn’t worry as much about football players as I worried about gymnasts. But now I do, for sure.

      I’ve always worried about boxers. That sport makes no sense to me. Why would you sign up for someone to hit your face?


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