Thursday, July 24, 2008

Real Sports...for real?

This week I appeared in a piece on HBO’s “Real Sports” about injuries in women’s gymnastics. There was some coverage of the show in the LA Times. An excerpt:

There seems an element of sexism, though, when every four years, the Olympics come around -- and women's gymnastics and figure skating invariably are singled out as being particularly cruel sports.

Nose around youth baseball and check out the surgical scars on pitchers' elbows. Or women's high school and college basketball for the knee and shoulder surgical scars. Has Candace Parker, her coaches or family ever been criticized for letting her continue to play basketball after her knee injuries?

These girls may be tiny, but they also are driven athletes. Shawn Johnson would rather be in the gym than on the computer, would rather eat grilled fish than a Big Mac, and says "that's OK" if she ends up with aches and pain in 10 or 20 years. "So do football players," Johnson says. "Nobody stops them." -

Have you ever seen a professional football player 20 years after he’s stopped playing? Many can barely walk, some have premature senility due to brain pounding injuries. Maybe it isn’t a good thing that nobody stops these guys from bashing themselves to near death/brain damage. But, to refute the claim that anyone is stopping these girls, no one is. In point of fact, we hail them as heroes. They will be the most watched athletes in these Olympic Games. They will be our pint-sized idols, come this August, as they will likely garner piles and piles of medals. My intent is not to stop them, rather to point out that it is an incredibly dangerous sport in which devastating injuries can and do occur; that sometimes the cost for medals and for winning might be too high; that perhaps children aren’t equipped to determine whether or not that price is too high. Hard to conjure in our winning is everything culture. But let’s look beyond gymnastics or even sports for a moment. Look where ‘winning is everything’ has gotten the banks and lenders? They were so desperate to ‘win’, they issued sub-prime loans and won in the short term. And we all know what happened in the long run. They lost, as did we all.

I was injured quite often – a torn hamstring, broken ankle, another broken ankle, stress fractures in my shins and my wrists, bone chips in my ankle that required surgery and, my crowning achievement…a broken femur. I know more than a few that broke their backs, their necks, including my own brother. These former gymnasts are lucky they can walk today. And of course, I know a few that aren’t quite so lucky.

In this very dangerous sport, young girls are often taken advantage of by their coaches. These aren’t grown women. They are children. I began competing as an elite at 10 years old. I was in no position to tell a coach ‘no’ if something ludicrous was asked of me like returning to practices on a broken ankle after only ten day in an ‘air cast’, nothing more than a glorified bandage. This situation, the disparate power dynamic, creates the conditions whereby CHILDREN can – not always – but can be taken advantage of. These young ladies can serve as fodder for the Olympic dreams of coaches and parents. And parents claiming, “Its her decision. She wants this,” about a 9 year old is simply deflecting parental responsibility, in my opinion. A child has no concept of the potential future ramifications on her health and general well-being.

Regarding the oft hurled claim that it’s sexist to even call attention to the high injury rates and abusive coaching tactics in women’s gymnastics, what’s truly sexist is not pointing out that the sport eats its young. It would imply we believe our young girls are disposable and, secondly, not worthy of the financial windfalls their male counterparts are able to collect from being world-class athletes. Generally, these best in class gymnasts will not reap the financial benefits that their male counterparts in football, baseball, basketball will. Women’s athletics are largely unviable as commercial properties. And in every instance where female athletes do make money, it’s less than their male partners (NBA vs WNBA anyone?) I can probably count on one hand the number of female gymnasts who have made a killing in gymnastics. And that ‘killing’ likely can’t compare to a 2nd tier basketball player in the NBA. That’s sexist. Not pointing out that female gymnasts get hurt and sometimes their best interests aren’t looked out for by their coaches.

You want to know what else is sexist? That we like these girls because they are cute. They look pretty and perfectly petite therefore we watch. They aren’t threatening in their accomplishment because they are simply darling with their big smiles and springy ponytails. This is how we like our female stand-outs, whether they be politicians, business women or athletes. Other female athletes will demonstrate equal feats of physical incredible-ness at these Olympic Games. Female shot putters, basketball players, soft ballers. These athletes will defy expectations with their physical prowess but it is likely that none will garner the attention and love that our gymnasts do. Whether they win or not. There are exceptions. We fell in love with the Williams sisters and their tough, muscular physiques on the tennis court. Brandy Chastain was all power in her running bra and triumph. But it is my humble belief that these are the women we make exceptions for because they are so dynamic that they demand it. Liking little cute things comes much easier for us. That’s sexist.

And finally, I know young gymnsats will say it's okay to end up with aches and pains in 10 or 20 years, as Shawn Johnson indicates. And I’m proof that that is likely true. I don’t mind the way my body creaks. The way my ankles swell, my hips pop, my hands stiffen to the point that it is hard to hold a cup of coffee in the morning. But Ms. Johnson can’t know what she will be okay with 20 years from now. She doesn't know what will matter at 29 or 39 or 59. And whether or not this life she’s participating in now will give her great joy and pride, or physical pain and regret (likely not…especially if she wins the Olympics) in a few decades. And what about the girls who train the same way, who will suffer from the same arthritis-y aches and pains or more as adults, but don’t have a gold medal to justify the “it was worth it!”? How will they feel?

Dominique Moceanu has a gold medal and has suggested she might not go through it all again. I don’t have one and I say I would, even if I didn’t get a gold medal again next time. Fifteen years ago I said it wasn’t worth it, that I missed having a childhood, that it splintered my relationship with my parents beyond repair. Now, with age and perspective, I dispute that, taking a more ambivalent view. I have nightmares about the traumas but I miss the good parts everyday. It just not that simple as to say: “I won’t mind if my body hurts when I’m an adult." The body scars are the least of the issue, afterall.

I wish Shawn Johnson the best; I hope she wins all the gold medals and never has a moment of struggle in her post-gymnastics life. She seems impossibly talented, buoyant, charismatic and joyful. I’m merely saying that children can’t know what will be good for them later. We protect children in our culture in many ways – we don’t’ let them play in traffic, we make them go to school, we have child labor laws. Why is it okay to put these children to work? Because they say they like it? Or because they win?

And why (I know I said ‘finally’ above, implying I was nearly done…but allow me one more point) when we hold communism in such disdain, do we want to ‘cut and paste’ the model deployed in China of finding the most talented athletes at a very young age, honing their talents while still under 10, and springing them on the world as proof that their system is superior, gold medals serving as evidence of a country’s dominance? We don’t want all the stuff we think is bad about communism – lack of individual freedom and choice – in fact we’ve been willing to go to war over it, but we want to adopt the stuff we like, that involves winning, even if it also entails curtailed freedoms, albeit for 6 and 8 year olds?

Herein lies the hypocrisies of women’s elite gymnastics. Which, I daresay, are merely microcosmic examples of the world at large. As long as winning is a part of the process, we’ll do anything – sacrifice our young, our values, the culture of democracy we pride ourselves in – to get it.


Danny R. Faught said...

I just finished your book, and I wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed it. The way you told the story matter-of-factly, without much judgement. It really made sense the way you say that your personal drive was directed toward gymnastics, and now in other directions, so if you hadn't done gymnastics, you would have inevitably gotten involved in some other activity with the same zeal. Your book has helped me understand what's going on in my daughter's mind as she continues to grow her gymnastics skills.

KristenM said...

You're absolutely right. But hopefully with you and Dominique Moceanu speaking out, and maybe more to come, things will start to change. Unfortunately, it will probably require changes at the top of the sport.

Caroline said...

Thanks for this great post. Very thought provoking, and there are no easy answers. I appreciated your interview on Real Sports as well. You and Dominique Moceanu are making very important points. I just want to say that as a female, I don't watch gymnastics because the gymnasts are "cute" but rather because it makes me think back to who I was at their age and what it must be like to be going through what they're experiencing at such a tender age. For me, it's always been a "Wow, she's so young, how does she do it?" kind of thing. I feel that way about talented child actors too. Anyway, thanks for your very intelligent, thought-provoking post.

Jennifer Sey said...

Caroline, I just want to say I wholeheartedly appreciate your avid readership! It means so much and your comments are so thoughtful. Thank you.
Jen Sey

Carrie said...

I don't think you need a gold medal, or any medal, or even elite status to say it was all worth it. I'm evidence that you can toil for years and "retire" (dumb gymnastics jargon) at level 7 or 8 and still think it's the best activity for kids and the greatest sport in the world.

I think the problem we're having with gymnastics today is that coaches--with USAG always following suit--continue to raise the standards. So in 1990 I was 13and a level 6, working out 9 hrs a week and feeling pretty good about myself, whereas today you'd be hard pressed to find a gym with that girl. If she's 13, she better be at least a level 9. If she's a level 6, she's probably 9 years old...and if she's ONLY going 9 hours a week, she's not going to be allowed to compete any higher than level 4.

Younger and younger...the kids are competing at much higher levels, much younger. And it's not because there are oodles of gymnastics prodigies in 2008 as opposed to 1984--it's because coaches and USAG have forced the standards higher. Kids want to do gymnastics, but their coaches say they can't just go 3 days a week for a 3 hour workout. If they want to compete gymnastics, they have no choice but to go 15-20 hours per week. And these are the kids who KNOW they will never make it to NCAA level, much less elite. Suppose there was a poll offered to these competitive gymnasts. I wonder how many hours they would CHOOSE to go.

And now, as a 31-year-old full time mother, a 3 hour block for 3 days a week--that seems like an eternity!


gymnast83 said...

Well said Jen! I wish I could write as eloquently as you do. I have a hard time putting my thoughts down on paper.

I wouldn't give up my experiences in gymnastics for anything in the world. Do I wish some of my experiences were different? Absolutely! I hope your book & comments help people understand the world of elite sports. What I don't understand is why you and Dominique are being criticized for speaking out about your experiences? Is it only OK to talk about the good? What about the bad? Why are you the bad guys when you didn't do anything wrong? I think the answer lies in corporate America. USA Gymnastics is a milti-millon dollar empire. If our girls win that means money in their pockets and in the pockets of USA Gymnastics. I feel the same way you what costs are we creating champions? Or even just elite athletes. Yes, we taking advantage of our athletes. Why is this OK? Think about it...if a school teacher touched your child they would be immediately arrested. We as parents wouldn't stand for that! So, why is it OK for coaches to hit us, humiliate us, and abuse us in many other ways? I just don't understand!