Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pressure and Controversy

You remember the struggles and pain you had
When all the good had turned to bad
For it all to simply just go away...
But when the pressure builds and tears you apart
How are you able to not depart
How are you able to still carry a smile
When everything inside is in a pile

That was an excerpt from a poem called "Champion", written by star US gymnast, Shawn Johnson. She wrote it during a stay at the national training center in March as a way to put into words the pressure she and her teammates feel to succeed.

I can't even imagine that type of pressure, at the tender age of 16, no less. The "ladies" on the US women's team range in age from 16 to 20 (team captain, Brown University student Alicia Sacramone). Your country's hopes riding on your back as you tumble and throw your body all over the mat.

You're 1 point away from the leaders with 2 rotations to go. Olympic gold is within your reach if you can just do your job. But you fall. Your nerves get the best of you. And you blame yourself because your team took silver.

That's what happened to Sacramone in the team finals. She fell during her mount on the beam and then again after a tumbling pass in the floor exercise. Some people feel that as the team captain, she has the most pressure, especially since she's the oldest, and thus able to internalize it more.

It's said that the older gymnasts feel more pressure, and the younger the team is, the less pressure they feel, because perhaps they don't understand it as much.

That could be one explanation for using underage athletes. I'm sure by now you've heard of the controversy over the Chinese women's gymnastics team. Last month, the NY Times uncovered evidence (as posted on the Chinese national team's websites earlier this year, but now taken down) that not all of their gymnasts are the legal age of 16 (or at least 15 1/2...a gymnast must turn 16 within the calendar year in which the Olympics take place in order to compete).

Sports Illustrated link

Even before I'd heard that a couple of the Chinese gymnasts had previously been reported as having birthdays in 1994 (but suddenly this year their records have been "corrected" and they now have government-issued passports that state they were born in 1992), I said to Mr. Brice, "wow, some of those girls look 8 or 9!" One of the girls is just 4'6" and weighs only 68 pounds. Now, I know gymnasts are typically very small, but that's just beyond tiny for a 16-year-old. That was about my size in 5th grade! Not to mention that she has a missing tooth...

My husband couldn't figure out why a team would falsify documents like that. In his mind, a 16-year-old would be stronger, and thus better than a 14-year-old. But he's forgetting two key issues. First, a bigger and more powerful gymnast pounds the floor in her landings with much more force than a smaller one. With a couple extra years of the extra force in the landings (6 more years, in the case of Sacramone), this can add up to stress injuries much more easily. Second, the younger gymnasts are more fearless and have less stress.

But I don't know about that. I'd think that competing for the host country would lead to an awful lot of stress, too.

Anyway, what do you think about the stress and pressure we put these young girls under? With the exception of the team leaders, these are teenagers, for the most part). And do you really think Deng Linlin (the super little bitty one with the missing tooth) is 16?


  1. I'd be surprised if any of the Chinese girl gymnasts are 16. Most of them don't look like they're past puberty. I didn't notice the missing tooth, but there's a big age-indicator right there. Poor little things. They're like trained poodles. Give me American athletes any day. They may not have won the gold, but they train hard and still have lives. Or in the case of Michael Phelps, he wins the golds and still seems like a normal person. If you watch him in the shots while he's waiting to compete, he's usually bopping to his iPod. (And sometimes lip-syncing along, which is just too cute.)

  2. For me, it's not the shortness and lack of curves that makes me think they might be on the younger side. I was a serious dancer for years...I didn't develop in the normal way until much later.

    It's the baby teeth and the potentially altered birthdates that's troubling.

    On Romance Divas, Seeley deBorn brought up a good point. Because so many families want a son rather than a daughter, she wonders how well documented many of these births really are. One of the gymnasts previously was listed as "January 1, 1994" and now suddenly this year's she's listed as "January 1, 1992". It's almost like they picked an arbitrary birthdate for her because they honestly don't know.

  3. Wow, this is sad. :( I can't imagine the stress and strain these young kids are under--I'd totally snap.

  4. It could be that puberty is stunted because of their training too.

  5. I personally think some of the Chinese gymnasts are under 16.

    That aside, I was so impressed with the class Alicia Sacramone showed when she was asked whether she thought they were underage. Her reply, "Well, I don't look 20." No complaining, no finger pointing. She took the high road and gave them the benefit of the doubt.

    I would hope that if I were faced with the same pressures, I would do the same. :-)


  6. My husband went to Brown, so we get the alumni magazine and they've profiled Alicia Sacramone. She seems like a real class act.

  7. I agree that, with the exception of the team captain, some of the Chinese girls don't even look 14, and would not put it past their government to falsify documents. Heck, if I had the means even I could produce a passport and birth certificate with a reduced age.

    I think it's sad that so many children across China are yanked from their homes as young as 3 yrs old and put through rigorous training where they are not allowed to visit home but maybe once a year or lead their own lives, to choose what they want to do.

    At the same time, you can't help but wonder what kind of difference it would make in our country, particularly low-income areas, if children were removed from homes and sent to boarding schools where they were tested for aptitude in sport or academics, or taught a trade that would make them productive members of society.

  8. I don't think many of those gals are 16.
    And I agree that it is cheating, but its not for the US to start stomping around and screaming about. Its something the Judges should have followed up on when it was first questioned.

    The fact is, that 12 year old (or however old) performed better then we did.

  9. Did anyone besides myself notice the amount of makeup on the smaller girls, and how their cheekbones seemed to vanish after toweling off sweat?

  10. Jennifer3:58 PM

    I am willing to give almost anyone the benefit of the doubt. But, in my opinion, only a couple of those gymnasts from the host country could possibly pass for 16.

    In recent days, a number of possible reasons for using younger gymnasts have been offered by various sources. They have ranged from flexibility issues to younger competitors not fully realizing the great pressure placed on them. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, if the rumors are true - that the ages were falsified - it is a true shame.

  11. Chrissy, I didn't notice the toweling off of the cheekbones, but I did notice that the Chinese gymnasts seem to favor blue eye shadow whereas the US gymnasts favor brown eye shadow.

  12. It's a real crock and I feel badly for the US team because they're the ones who suffered because of the unfair advantage.

    In my mind, the US women's team is the real gold medalist.