Wednesday, October 1, 2008

That old age Chestnut..

So the FIG may have claimed the Chinese are innocent, but the age debate rages on regardless- in a different, and to me, far more worrying form.
 Some still claim the Chinese did indeed cheat and falsified the girl’s ages.  They want to exact justice. 
Some, horrified by the sight of such youth at the Beijing, want to raise the age limit of Olympic gymnasts again. 
Some say leave it alone, claiming the Romanians and the Russians it for years anyway and they haven't been punished. 
Some say abandon the age cut-off altogether and recognize that gymnastics is a sport best performed by tiny bodies. 
Some call it glorified child abuse or child labour.

I was not going to post anything about the age issue.  Enough people are talking about it already.  THEN I saw a poll on the AboutGymnastics site asking people's opinions about the age cut-off for the Olympics. Most participants, of the fifteen hundred who’d already voted when I looked at it, voted to abolish the age cut-off altogether.  
That really worried me. I know a lot of fans hate to hear bad things about our beautiful sport, but sometimes, it has to be faced. In removing the age rule, we could be making young girls even more susceptible to harm.  I believe that abolishing the age cut-off might not have such a detrimental effect in some countries- but in other countries it might.

To start off, what is at stake here? What is it that makes this particular, seemingly never-ending debate about age in gymnastics so fiery and so ongoing?
To me, it is a simple question. 
We know that very tiny girls can do gymnastics. 
We know they can do it well- better than anyone.  
We know small bodies go higher and twist faster. 
BUT are we certain that girls- of the age gymnastics is best performed- are capable of making wise and informed choices about their bodies and their careers without succumbing to outward, less healthy influences (such as eating disorders, bad coaching, pushy parents or simply being forced into training)?
Many of us could probably comfortably say that, to our knowledge, there are enough people in the world looking out for children, such as teachers, parents, coaches, counsellors and doctors, that someone would surely notice if a young gymnast was being pushed into the sport, badly trained or abused in any way. 
Yes, we can quite comfortably say that in places like Australia, Canada, Europe or America where our Olympic gymnasts began training voluntarily, are clearly of age at the Olympics-often older, who in (many) cases attend school outside of the gym and ussually decide for themselves, or at least make an informed decsion based on desire and the workload, wether or not they want to attempt to become elite.
That is not to say that there has been no concern in the West. There has been plenty  over the years.  Questions about this very issue have been raised by the publication of books like Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, or Jennifer Sey’s autobiography Chalked Up. And while the media celebrated Kerri Strug’s ultimate act of self-sacrifice on vault to bring the U.S to glory, there were those who wondered if she felt like she had to do it. All of this debate has been, quite simply, about wether very young girls have enough control over their lives to be willing and informed participants in their own sporting careers.
But, what I really want to know is, when we say, if we say, that there should be no age limit in gymnastics, are we only thinking of the gymnasts in cultures we are familiar with?
In China, for example- the source of the most debate at the moment- what we must remember is that two major aspects of the society mean that the training of gymnasts occurs much differently to Western gymnasts. 
The first is that China, like many Asian cultures, is an interdependent culture, meaning that everything that is done, is done for the good of the group.  It is a culture where no one should stand out and make themselves more special or different. This cultural basis for social behavior is in complete opposition to Western society, where there is an independent self-construal where, though we care deeply about others, it is perfectly normal to celebrate the success of the individual, to express our sense of being individual and different from others and to make decisions based on our personal desires.
In countries like China, the central desire is to harmonise with the group. This interdependence is desired even more in Communism, the second aspect, where the belief is to share the wealth and work for the greater good. 
That is why, in countries like China, parents, while sad to part from them, may have no qualms about giving up their children at a very young age, sending them to places hours away to be fed, educated and trained by strangers. It is for the good of the country. It is for the good of the community that China is successful and attains international glory through sport. Success in sport, then, is proof that Communism works.

So, when a young Chinese gymnast competes, she is not necessarily compelled just by her own individual desire to compete or to win, but assumes she must do it for her team and her country. Also, do not forget, in China, at those training centres (of which there are supposedly 5000 plus), gymnastics is a job, not a recreational sport, no matter how old you are. 
And China is not a rich country for most of its citizens, so parents are grateful for the opportunity for their child to earn food and education through sport and sometimes have no other choice. 
Now, I don’t know about any of you, but I feel concerned and sad when I read or hear about eight-year-old Indian boy working all day to make money to feed himself and his family. How different is that from an eight-year-old gymnast in China or in communist Russia or Romania back in the days? 
Romania and Russia, unlike China, are not strictly interdependent societies, but for a time, Communism forced them to be that way. Under Communism, you did things for the good of your country. An athlete’s one and only job was to bring glory to the country through victories. Happiness and childhood sometimes had to be sacrificed for the medals that would come with strict diets, endless training hours and the lack of a good education.
Then Communism fell. And we have seen what happened to gymnastics in those countries. We have seen the fluff pieces showing Svetlana Khorkina and co walking into a tumbledown gym, training on ancient equipment. We have heard of countless coaches and ex-gymnasts fleeing Romania the moment the fall of the Ceacescu regime allowed it. We saw Russia and Romania suddenly drop in the standings. No longer did they have the government funding to scour the country for talented youngsters, build gyms and train their newfound talents in centralized boarding schools.

Their gymnastics teams may not be as successful as in the past.  But I am willing to bet their gymnasts are a lot happier. They are certainly older. Years ago, Steliana Nistor and Sandra Izbasa may not have even made it to Beijing. That is not to say they don’t have the talent, but who is to know there wasn’t some twelve-year-old product of Deva who was better and faster smaller than them to go to the Olympics? They also look happier. Compare Gina Gogean’s expression on winning to Steliana Nistor’s, or Izbasa’s to Amanar’s during competition.
It is enough of a change to see Steliana Nistor announce her own retirement. She is not simply disappearing into the darkened gyms of Onesti to coach the babies and await her pension while the Romanian coach brushes her aside to the media and goes on to talk about the next big thing.
But please, make no mistake this is a country that while under Communism (and in the years that followed it’s fall) had such a regime that a young girl (Adriana Giurca) was brutally beaten by her coach- to death, and her parents had to appeal twice to ensure the coach even went to prison because the other gymnasts were too frightened to testify against the coach.
This was a regime that happily falsified their gymnasts’ age for years.
This was a regime that, like China, took girls from their home at a very young age.
This was a regime so poor that some girls, after retirement, when they were no longer fed or clothed by the government, were forced to pose nude for foreign magazines for the money only to be shamed by the media back home.
This was a regime that allowed a gymnast to be removed from the all-around,  despite her efforts and replaced by another on a coaches whim. 
And most of this we did not find out until years later.

This does not mean every single gymnast led a lonely, unhappy life. Many probably were happy. It doesn't mean they didn't love the sport. They probably did.  But did they love the way they were made to train for it? Did they know, when their parents signed them on as babies, that it was a job, not a game? A job that they had to be qualified and successful in by age eleven or twelve or their careers were over?

I am not saying that the Chinese girls are necessarily unhappy either.  Nor am I saying that they are being abused. 
But I wonder, if they are really as young as some media articles claim, do they know that this is the place in the world they could be happiest? 
Do they, as they eat, train and sleep in the same place, with the same people every day, enter into that choice as knowledgeably and as informed as, say, a young American gymnast about to take a class a few miles away from her school and home just to see if she likes it?

How do we know, given the very strict governmental control of the media in China that the girls are being trained and educated properly and given choices about their lives? What if these girls- if a change of law grants it- can be pushed even harder, at an even younger age toward the Olympics? What if their parents, too poor to feed and clothe them have no other choice but to leave them there, no matter how the girls feel about it?

I think when we participate in this debate- when we say abolish the age cut-off, or ask who really cares if the Chinese are underage- that girls should be allowed to be any age when they compete- that we should consider that it is not just the gymnasts in our own culture that this kind of rule protects. It is also in place to protects others who may have less freedom to make the choice about how, when and wether or not they do gymnastics at all.  
Hopefully, after this whole controversy, and knowing they are being watched by the world, China will be very very careful about their gymnasts ages. Firstly because it is terrible sportsmanship to cheat an age rule, but principally, because it might be a  a form of exploitation, wether we like the idea or not.
I don't want to be all melodramatic.  And I certainly don't want to victimize China or claim abuse.  That is not the point.  I am just asking that we remember that these are very young people being put to work before they have a chance to experience what else is out there in the world for them.
 In Beijing we saw six, seemingly happy little girls.  
Of course they were happy.  
They were on a winning Olympic team. 
But what about the rest that trained to make that team? The ones who went through the same training in the same institutions since they were toddlers because science decreed they might have a shot at being a great gymnast and bringing medals to China? What happens to them now?
Please remember, abandoning the age cut-off might be great for the sport, but is it great for the athletes?


  1. I only recently started reading your blog and i must say it is amazing!The way you express your thoughts and justify your opinion is truly commendable, you defintely show that you don't intend to offend others with a different opinion. Thew topics you choose to write about are unique and interesting aswell. Well done and keep up the great work :)

  2. Thanks so much. Both for your support, and just by letting me now you are reading it! It's encouraging to know that someone is reading it and enjoying it.

  3. I totally agree with you. I remember when they raised the age limit and people were saying how harmful it would be for the sport, that the quality of performance would go down and juniors would become the truly competitive venue, but in my opinion it didn't turn out that way. Everyone (well most everyone) just adjusted to the idea of gymnasts peaking later and not only is the gymnastics just as beautiful, the girls look happier all 'round. I think getting rid of the age requirement would hurt the sport in a number of ways.

    I do think FIG needs to come up with a better way of tracking athletes ages, but I don't honestly know how they would do it.

  4. I really have a hard time with lot of this. Living in the seemingly "perfect" society that apparently caters to the needs of the individuals (in this case children) we seem to have an abundance of unhappy, disillusioned world class gymnasts (at all ages), despite the fact that we pretend that our system is better than theirs. For every ecstatic Nastia Liukin and Carly Patterson we also have the Vanessa Atlers, Dominique Moceanus, Jennifer Seys, Krystal Uzelacs, Kristie Phillips and myriad of others who were as world class as it gets and yet they left the sport bitter and disillusioned, and often more than happy to slag it at every opportunity. Many such athletes point to "abuse" of some sort or another yet the alleged perpetrators are still out there coaching and often quite liked and respected. I'm not sure how much of this unhappiness is a product of the society or regime we live under, I believe that much of it is simply attributable to human nature itself. Perhaps then, what we need to be doing is totally discouraging individuals to strive for the ultimate greatness because the fall can be so devastating. Mediocrity can be so rewarding, after all. Boy, would we have some fun in the gyms then.

    I also believe that it's so easy to criticize others from the outside looking in, to pass judgements on other societies and cultures, especially when they are different from our own. One of my best friends is an ex-chinese national team member who just missed 1996 because of an injury, his account of the chinese training atrocities is much different than what we hear in the media, and his love for the sport is undiminished. Yes, he missed the big payoff, the glory, the pinnacle of gymnastic achievement, yet he's not bitter and he looks back at his training experience with fondness and pride. And yes, he also got "plucked" from his family at a very young age, yet he has no regrets. He seems to have this little something called a perspective, and it seems to make all the difference.

    I am in no way insinuating that abuse doesn't happen. I'm sure it does, but it happens in ALL cultures, and in ALL walks of life and we need to stop pretending that it's somehow exclusive to the sport of gymnastics and underaged children, exclusive to third world countries, ambitious coaches, parents etc. By doing so we are doing the greatest disservice to our beautiful sport and adding credence to those who feel that it's nothing more than a glorified form of child abuse.

    IMHO the solutions to many of these problems are far too complex and the resources needed to do this are currently far beyond any single organization, including FIG, USAG, GCG or any other. I don't think we should give up because of it but I think we do need to identify where to focus for best results, because apparently dumb stop-gap measures like age restrictions are not the right place.

  5. I second the praise for your blog. It's fabulous!

  6. George N, thanks for your comments.
    But I hope you understand that I do not for a second believe that these things don't happen in the U.S, nor that I claim that they absolutely do in countries like China because they are third-world.
    I am not asking that the age cut-off stays in place because Chinese athletes or any others are being abused, I ask because I believe in self-determination, particularly when it comes to making decisions about something as consuming as an elite sports career, a decision that i believe can only be made when one has a degree of maturity- something that the Chinese training system may not allow for.

  7. Your blog is brillant - reading it is always a highlight of my day!

    As for this particular post, I think your opinions were very well expressed and valid. I don't know how effective the age rule is overall, but I definitely agree with your concerns in removing it.

    I hear what George is saying too though. At the end of the day, I think whether or not we have this age rule, we are still going to uncover unacceptable occurences and circumstances in the sport of gymnastics, and in many if not most other elite/olympic level sports.

    The constant quest of humans to go higher, faster, stronger opens doors for gross abuse and/or misconduct as we seek to continuously create champions the likes of which the world has never seen before.

    I think rules are essential to try and protect both athletes and the integrity of sport in general. But where there are rules, there are cheaters - fact of life, and not just in sport.

    Personally, I am pro the age rule staying in place. Does it prevent all kids from being pushed into things they are not ready to handle? No. But if it makes a difference for just a handful of children, I think it's a positive step.

  8. Thanks for this blog entry - you are totally right :-))!

  9. I absolutely love your blog; the entries are always well written, full of facts and thought provoking ideas. I am always very excited when I see you have a new post.
    As for this article I agree that the age limit should stay, mainly because of what you talked about in this article: the should be old enough to make there own educated decisions on what coarse they want their career to take. I am 15 almost 16 myself and I believe that at 12, 13 or even 14 years olds do not have enough life experience or in my case spent to much time wanting to please others. I do not necessarily believe that the chinese girls are underage or being abused, but i do think that the have hardly any control over how they lead their lives, which I think is something that a teenager should have at lease some of.
    Anywho keep up the great articles!!!!!!

  10. SomewhereOverTheRainbowApril 27, 2009 at 3:57 PM

    So ive been reading your blog for like months and i don't know why i do not comment more often because OMG I LOVE IT! And i must read this post,oh, at least once a week? And thats a conservative estimate. I have to say that during the olympics, I was pretty "Anti-age limit". After all (even though i love China gymnastics and believed those are some amazingly talented little girls that deserved the Gold)my USA girls had jordyn wieber and rebecca bross sitting at home! Why should an age limit keep them from helping USA win? After reading this post, everything was brought to a whole new light. The age limit is neccesary, and i think you should be on the FIG executive board lol. Enjoy your Euro trip! We cant wait til you get home!