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?