Philobiblon: Why gymnastics should be banned

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Why gymnastics should be banned

... or at least significantly changed.

Sir Matthew Pinsent is today reporting back from China about observing the training of young gymnasts for this Olympics, and the one after. The BBC reports:

He claimed children were in pain while training, and said: "It was a pretty disturbing experience. I was really shocked by some of what was going on." ...Pinsent felt children were being pushed beyond acceptable limits in pursuit of excellence and was disappointed that it appeared to be regarded as necessary.

But I would suggest that while China might be taking this to greater extremes than you normally see in the West, the basic problem lies with the sport. This is particularly a problem in women's, or I should say "girls'", gymnastics.

These are children - usually before puberty, or with all signs of puberty disguised by huge amounts of exercise and a restricted diet - doing things that only such small lithe bodies can do. Female gymnasts are usually washed out for serious competition by the age of 18, if not 16.

And to do these things even the girls have to put in vast numbers of hours of physically hard training - and many of course will fall by the wayside with injuries before they even see the inside of a competition hall - labelled as failures as 10, or 12, or 14. And what sort of education will they have received for other careers?

Oddly enough, the men - who perform different types of routines on different apparatus - are usually in their late teens or early 20s, much like athletes in other sports.

Aside from the sexualisation of routines - girls are expected to smile ridiculously and pleasingly while performing the most amazing physical feats - there's a question about a sport that ensures all of its participants are washed up before the age of 18.

The answer surely is to limit the age of participation - should children of 12 really be competing in Olympics and World Championships? And should the competition really require, and be judged, on the basis of what a child's body can do? Isn't this child labour, and child abuse - not just in China, but everywhere?


Blogger Biting Beaver said...

yes, yes, and yes! You're right on the money with all of it. I was pushed into both gymnastics and ballet as a young girl. I wound up breaking an ankle to the extent that even now, some 20 odd years later, I can only hobble around on the coldest winter days.

I'm all for regulating female gymnastics. And you're right on about male gymnastics as well. Males generally cannot do the things that their doing until they've developed muscle mass which usually only comes with puberty.

The sexualization of the young girls combined with the pressure (both physically and mentally) that is placed on girls is way too much for young bodies and minds to deal with.

Excellent post!

11/17/2005 05:11:00 pm  
Blogger la peregrina said...

No, it's not just China. Joan Ryan's book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes:The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, is an indictment against the sport.

11/17/2005 08:03:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Agreed, La Peregrina. That's the point I was trying to make. There's much being made of the problem of "barbaric" China, but its treatment of child athletes is probably only marginally worse than anywhere else. The problem is with the sport, not with individual countries.

And biting beaver I'm sorry to hear your story, but doubt it is unusual. I was going to include ballet in this post, but decided I would be clouding the issue. I've no doubt physically it is just as bad, and in terms of gender image it is utterly horrendous.

11/17/2005 08:09:00 pm  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I have to reluctantly agree. I was a non elite gymnast as a child, and really enjoyed it. My mother judges world level competitions (she's at the world championships right now) and we have arguments about it.

The sport tinkers at the edges (you may not believe it, but you have to be at least 15 now to compete at world level) and tries to give credit in the judging for athleticism, rather than other stuff, but its really only tinkering. It is better than it used to be (Svetlana Khorkina competed successfully at the Athens Olympics at the age of 25) but not enough in my view.

If I had a daughter, I wouldn't want her to do gymnastics, for fear she might turn out to be good enough at it to get sucked into the destructive part.

11/17/2005 09:53:00 pm  

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