WOMEN’S GYMNASTICS: THE BIG MAC OF THE BEIJING GAMES

August 17, 2008 – 5:33 am



When it comes to women’s gymnastics at the Olympics, there is the remarkable, CGI-like athleticism by all the young women involved. On the other hand, there is the knowledge that the competitors have had their bodies and health manipulated and warped so they can execute on the springboard. Dave Zirin reports.

The Olympics and I have what you could call a conflicted relationship. There’s the beauty of the games, the enjoyment of sports that don’t normally make it onto the sports landscape. Then there that ugly pervasive undercurrent that can leave you queasy. It’s like eating at McDonald’s: so tasty at first, so nauseating upon reflection.

If the Olympics are McDonald’s, then women’s gymnastics is without question the Big Mac. There is the remarkable, CGI-like athleticism by all the young women involved. Then there is the knowledge that the competitors have had their bodies and health manipulated and warped so they can execute on the springboard.

This past week saw what Sports Illustrated’s EM Swift called “the marquee event of these Beijing Games” - the women’s gymnastics team finals where China and the US went head-to-head. China won and, in a staggering act of hypocrisy, all that US national team coordinator Martha Károlyi and her husband Béla (banned from coaching the team for unspecified reasons) could do was bellow about how the Chinese team violated age violations and cheated their way to the gold. (Béla calls the Chinese gymnasts “half people.”)

The media has run with this, raising hell with accusations that the Chinese were using several gymnasts under the age of 16. The Chinese coach, Lu Shanzen smartly responded, “If you think our girls are little because of looks, then maybe you should think the Europeans and Americans are strong because of doping.”

Let’s forget the terrible irony that the media is all too concerned about Chinese gymnasts who aren’t 16 but have turned a blind eye to the way Chinese child labor has been used to prepare Beijing for the Olympic games.

Béla and Martha Károlyi launching these attacks is like hearing George W. Bush criticize Russia for invading Georgia: they simply have no moral standing whatsoever. The Károlyis’ success in gymnastics is unparalleled. They have coached nine Olympic champions, 15 world champions, 16 European medalists and six US national champions.

The terrible irony that the media is all too concerned about Chinese gymnasts who aren’t 16 but have turned a blind eye to the way Chinese child labor has been used to prepare Beijing for the Olympic games.

Yet to deal with the Károlyis is to deal with the devil. Their reputation for starving young girls on 900 calorie a day diets and verbally abusing them so they can be light enough to stick the landing, is infamous. There have even been reports suggesting that Béla has had young girls practice on broken bones.

As 1996 Olympian Dominique Moceanu said last month, “If it was up to the athletes, [the Károlyis would have been banned from the sport] a long time ago.” She also once said, “I’m sure Béla saw injuries, but if you were injured, Béla didn’t want to see it… You had to deal with it. I was intimidated. He looked down on me. He was 6-feet something, and I was 4-foot nothing.”

The Károlyis were the driving force behind the dominance of the “4-foot nothing gymnast”, dramatically and irrevocably transforming their sport.

As Joan Ryan wrote in her harrowing book, Little Girls In Pretty Boxes:

“In 1956 the top two Olympic female gymnasts were 35 and 29 years old. In 1968 gold medalist Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia was 26-years-old, stood 5 feet 3 inches and weighed 121 pounds. Back then, gymnastics was truly a woman’s sport… [In 1976] 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci clutched a baby doll after scoring the first perfect 10.0 in Olympic history. She was 5 feet tall and weighed 85 pounds. The decline in age among American gymnasts since Comaneci’s victory is startling. In 1976 the six US Olympic gymnasts were, on average, 17 and a half years old, stood 5 feet three and a half inches and weighed 106 pounds. By the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the average US Olympic gymnast was 16-years-old, stood 4 feet 9 inches and weighed 83 pounds, a year younger, 6 inches shorter and 23 pounds lighter than her counterparts of 16 years before.”

Béla Károlyi, of course, trained Comaneci and later defected, took his act to the states and hasn’t looked back, making millions on the brittle backs of young women whose bodies are misshapen on account of his ruthless pursuit of gold. Yes, women’s gymnastics can make you queasy all right. And the thought of Béla Károlyi, bending his huge frame over to get in the face and scream at young girls, is enough to really make you sick.

Note: This article is posted on the Nation. Visit http://www.thenation.com.

Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). He also wrote Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket Books, 2007). He is also the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and has also gotten himself a blog site, www.myspace.com/edgeofsports, which he invites you to visit. His book, “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States,” is also in stores. You can receive his column, Edge of Sports, every week by emailing edgeofsports- [email protected] Dave says: “I love writing this column but can only continue with this work if people buy the books. We have a lot of mouths to feeds in this house (and about three of them are mine). If you believe in progressive, iconoclastic sports writing please pick up a copy of Welcome To The Terrordome. If you believe in being part of a project to “tear down the Terrordome,” pick up five and give them to the apolitical sports fans in your life. The only way ideas like this spread are from the bottom up. And if you want to sound off on the article, please take the time to visit and post a comment at http://edgeofsports.com.

Other articles by Dave Zirin:
China’s Olympic Trials
Spying On A Sportswriter
Refocusing Olympic Protest

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Scandal of the Ages: Trouble at the Beijing Olympics

By David Flumenbaum, Huffington Post

What began as whispers among the media and gymnastics insiders weeks ago about the ages of three of China’s female Olympic gymnasts - Jiang Yuyuan, Yang Yilin and He Kexin - has grown into ear-shattering, head-hurting shouts. Despite assurances by Chinese officials that all three are 16, the minimum age of eligibility for Olympic competition, newly discovered documents and records prove otherwise.

The New York Times first looked into the age of China’s gymnasts with a story on July 27 that focused primarily on He Kexin, whose birthdate on numerous online records was listed as January 1, 1994, making her 14 when the Games began and ineligible to compete.

When the world was officially introduced to He Kexin this week, even those unwise to the ways of competitive gymnastics could tell that with He, something was not right. At 4-foot 8-inches tall and weighing 72 pounds, the Beijing native appears significantly younger than most of her Chinese teammates much less her American and European counterparts.

The world’s foremost expert on female gymnastics Bela Karolyi has routinely referred to the 2008 Chinese team as “half people” and in his contributions to NBC as a commentator during the Games he has railed against the Chinese for engaging in age falsification. After China outscored the U.S. in the qualification round, Karolyi had this to say about the Chinese gymnastics officials:

These people think we are stupid… We are in the business of gymnastics. We know what a kid of 14 or 15 or 16 looks like. What kind of slap in the face is this? They are 12, 14 years old and they get lined up and the government backs them and the federation runs away. There is an age limit and it can’t be controlled.

China has a rich history of age falsification in Olympics competition, especially in gymnastics.

Chinese Olympic officials have forcefully defended He’s eligibility, maintaining that when asked, they submitted proper passport documentation to the IOC. He’s passport says her date of birth is January 1, 1992, making her 16 and old enough to compete. However, as Karoyli told the AP, “passports mean nothing.”

China has a rich history of age falsification in Olympics competition, especially in gymnastics. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, three years after the minimum age was raised to 16 in gymnastics, Chinese gymnast Yang Yun competed and won a bronze medal in the uneven bars (coincidentally this event is also He’s specialty). Yang’s passport said she was born on December 24, 1984 and turning 16 in the year of the Games, making her eligible. She later confessed in a television interview that she was only 14 at the time of the competition and that she and her coaches had lied about her age.

As in the case of Yang Yun, the existing records prior to the Olympics - local registries, athletic records and news articles - were all correct, whereas the documentation she showed Olympic officials to confirm her eligibility proved to be false. It is no coincidence that He Kexin’s passport was issued on February 14, 2008, a mere 6 months before the Olympics.

What did the IOC have to say about the scandal? President Jacques Rogge said, “The IOC relies on the international federations, who are exclusively responsible for the eligibility of athletes. It’s not the task of the IOC to check every one of the 10,000 athletes.” Not every one Jacques, but maybe just the ones who look like they’re 10.

Note: This article is also posted at Alternet: http://www.alternet.org/blogs/peek/95106/

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