August 24, 2008

Sweatshop Gymnasts

I have to take the outrage over underage Chinese gymnasts with a grain of salt.

People can rail about it all they like, but they're still buying low priced items from Walmart and elsewhere, produced with child labor.

People still buy things like coffee for the lowest possible price, causing race-to-the-bottom situations in countries where the poor are driven to produce more crops for less wages, and are eventually unable to make a living wage. Their children (who don't happen to be high profile gymnasts) suffer, as they cannot afford basic things, like an education.

It may against the rules to send underage gymnasts to the Olympics, but we're faced with our own decisions which contribute to the plight of children who never get anywhere near an Olympic podium. Maybe some good can come of this (in my humble opinion, silly) scandal if it makes people think about the plight of children all over the world, and how our decisions contribute to those situations.

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Posted by James at August 24, 2008 6:01 PM
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If we suppose that the FIG and IOC made the gymnast age rule to prevent gymnast-milling, the rule fails any way. While China is the last totalitarian super power, the practice of state-rearing potential athletes from a young age started with Eastern Block countries in the fifties and sixties. Just because the rules say that gymnasts must be a certain age to compete won't prevent the practice. It will just delay the age at which the athletes can officially compete.

The Chinese Women's team (Women is really just a label for gender here, since none of them are adults) deserved most of the medals that they got (I disagreed with the judging on the uneven parallel bars.) If the Chinese girl who won was 16 or 12, I really don't care. She was up to the task.

It is sad to think that the Chinese athletes were removed from their families at a very young age. However, if you look at the childhood's of most of the medal contenders, regardless of their home country, none of them really had normal childhoods.

The difference between a communist child's athletic training regime and a capitalist child's regime is that, in the communist world, the state pays for the training in centralized athletic facilities. In the capitalist world, families make all the sacrifices (financial and life style) on their own. In the communist world, the state takes care of the financial burden, and may even financially reward the athletes family for giving over their child to the state program.

Neither childhood is ideal. However, when children display a talent, adults decide how that talent will be nurtured, and what cost is acceptable for what perceived benefit.

The IOC and the FIG are fooling themselves if they think that THEIR age rules are going to change how and when a child athlete begins the rigorous life of a potential Olympic athlete.

Posted by: Kitten Herder at August 24, 2008 10:17 PM

They do not deserve a medal if they have an unfair advantage. Having younger, smaller, less mature bodies gives them an advantage over the older girls.

Posted by: Julie at August 24, 2008 10:36 PM

(An advantage that's against the rules, I mean)

Posted by: Julie at August 24, 2008 10:40 PM

If there weren't the rule, there wouldn't be an unfair advantage, so I find that beside the point of the rule itself. I can't get worked up over the possibility there was an advantage; it's a few medals.

I know plenty of people who are able to put this into perspective. But for the amount of angst I've heard over this issue, I wonder if it is an uncommon perspective.

Posted by: James at August 24, 2008 11:41 PM

Oh, I don't think it is a big issue worthy of angst. But if the rule is designed to prevent the health of the athletes, then we certainly shouldn't reward people who cheat. We should also be doing other things to resolve the root cause, but it shouldn't be an either or.

Posted by: briwei at August 25, 2008 12:51 PM

I was careful not to imply that I thought it was an either-or situation, since my hope is to see people not ignore the issue, but rather relate it to a bigger picture.

Posted by: James at August 25, 2008 2:08 PM

A rule is a rule. Without laws, there is anarchy.

Plus, any child who competes at too young an age risks injury to a still-developing body. For example, how young is too young for a kid to start playing high-impact sports like football?

Here's an interesting story from Science News:

Girl athletes' energy crisis: Stoppage of periods in teenage female athletes stems from hormone imbalance brought on by scant calories
July 19th, 2008; Vol.174 #2

http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/33289/title/Girl_athletes_energy_crisis

Amenorrhea lessens production of estrogen, and estrogen is needed for bone growth, maintenance, and density.

"Meanwhile...while infertility caused by amenorrhea is easily reversed, the reduction in bone density poses a greater problem. 'It’s not fully known whether they can correct this loss of bone...These might be girls who will be at risk later in life.'"

I think it's too bad that any country, and I do mean any, would be greedy enough for medals that they would endanger the health of a child.

Posted by: Patti M. at August 25, 2008 3:12 PM

If it were a choice between being governed by the IOC or anarchy, I'm not so sure I wouldn't choose anarchy.

Posted by: James at August 25, 2008 3:18 PM

Yes yes, but you get my point. If there were no rules, then all kinds of stupidity would occur.

Doping? Sure! Bring it on!

Babies in the heptathalon? You bet!

There have to be ground rules, else, why would there be qualifying dives, runs, etc.

Posted by: Patti M. at August 25, 2008 3:25 PM

I think the issue of age in athletics is very complicated and probably won't be solved as long as we have loser-ass sideline parents living vicariously through their children, or, not to stereotype or imply that all parents with children spending several hours a day in sports fall into this category, parents who have a child with incredible talent who allow them to pursue a dream to the exclusion of a typical life.
Not only are girls amenorrheic, as Patti points out, but children are having overuse injuries because they play a single sport so intensely (such as soccer, playing in a regular league, an indoor league, a traveling league, for a school team, and never taking a break). And those are typical children, not kids who are ever going to win a medal at the national or international level. Gymnasts and skaters are sometimes anorexic or bulimic, because they need to keep their muscle up but their weight low. That is a problem that I think is interesting.

Rules, schmules, I don't think this post was about the rules, and I don't think the rules are as interesting as the other issues. Is taking children away from their families at the age of three so they can become a state gymnast wrong? Is pushing your young daughter to pursue gymnastics to the exclusion of nearly everything else, and to the point of injury, wrong? Is allowing your young daughter to pursue gymnastics to the exclusion of nearly everything else, and to the point of injury, wrong? Is preventing your young daughter from over-pursuing an interest, despite world-class talent, wrong?

Obviously there's a continuum here, and I think the question is, can a child make that choice? Should it be up to the child and the parents? Obviously, again, society gets a say. In our society, we're saying, "yes, it's more than okay to do this, because it's legal and we heap great accolades on the people who have done it." And they get some sort of an education, which is good, because certainly they can't keep throwing their broken bodies around gymnastic apparatus for the rest of their lives. OTOH, they can coach if they want to, so there is a career track associated with the skill they've learned. If they are happy and productive, that's all that matters, right?

James brings up the children and families who don't have a choice. The ones who are so impoverished that they must work and they don't get an education. I too get a little tired of hearing the commentators whine about the age of the Chinese gymnasts when there are similar real-life problems nobody wants to talk about on the TV box. (Then again, I can barely tolerate the sports commentators, or "news" commentators for that matter. MUST we cater to the lowest common denominator? Surely there is someone with a brain out there in TV land?)

I really don't think anybody is protected by this age limit, since they're going to be trained from preschool age anyway. Maybe they'll get it over with before they get seriously injured if they finish up sooner. Now changing the age when somebody can begin training for gymnastics, or limiting the number of hours by age, or going back to gymnastics as it was practiced by Olga Korbut and not risking life and limb with every single movement -- these are rules that would actually benefit the gymnasts.

As far as younger bodies having an advantage, I don't think that's entirely true, especially when you're talking about the difference between 14 and 16, if the 16 year old has more experience. I think it's very individual with such a small age difference. There is a potential trade off. The 16 year old has had more wear and tear and might be injured, but she might also have the experience to deal with her injuries or deal with competition or simply know more about gymnastics for those extra two years of experience.

No, I think the rule is just an arbitrary guideline.

Posted by: Maggie at August 25, 2008 5:07 PM

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