Olympics ‘women’s’ gymnastics may require reform

Like many recovering from the last few weeks of full-blown, Olympics-watching obsession, gymnastics was one of the highlights of the Beijing Games for me.

I waited with breathless anticipation for each stern-faced gymnast’s embark upon another feat of physical discipline and athletic perseverance. I marveled at the unrivaled athleticism of gymnasts who can hang on the rings in an Iron Cross and then inch each muscle up into a perfectly rigid inversion or maintain amazing form gliding nimbly from one uneven bar to the other. It was Olympic heaven.

As I watched with bated breath, however, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for enthralling myself in a sport with such a bad reputation for the grueling and oft-dangerous practices imposed on its female athletes. I wondered: How can one reconcile watching (and thus endorsing) women’s gymnastics given the less-than-savory and hazardous phenomena that characterize it?

The sport has long been known as a breeding ground for extreme eating disorders among female athletes that have resulted in enduring physical and psychological injuries for many and death for others.

Signs of pernicious occurrences are becoming increasingly well documented, thanks in part to tell-all books written by former gymnastic champions, such as Jennifer Sey and Joan Ryan. Evidence of unusually demanding training, high rates of injury and even sexual misconduct in the world of competitive female gymnastics is mounting, and what makes it most disturbing is the ages of the female gymnasts involved.

Though it is called women’s gymnastics, the sport is primarily for girls. While male gymnasts’ careers extend well into their 20s, female gymnasts’ careers typically end after their teen years. Their bodies naturally grow larger and — often strained from repeated injuries — older female gymnasts’ frames are no longer seen as adequate to perform the duties for which their prepubescent bodies were so well equipped.

While Olympic female gymnasts must now be at least 16 years old in the competing year, the effectiveness of age minimums is dubious at best. Scandal erupted over allegations that three gymnasts on China’s 2008 gold-medal women’s gymnastics team are under the minimum age. But China’s team is surely not alone in capitalizing on the miniscule and relatively unmarred figures of younger athletes.

New York Times writer Buzz Bissinger wrote that “(16) is still young, too young perhaps to compete in the Olympics where female bodies are still being formed not just physically but psychologically. But that’s the way it is in women’s gymnastics — in your prime in your teens until such nettlesome realities as puberty and weight gain often render you washed-up and useless.”

There is also the nasty matter of the sexualization of girls’ bodies in gymnastics. Whereas men’s gymnastics focuses on strength, as reflected in floor routines that center around tumbling, balance and muscular endurance moves, women’s gymnastics is supposedly more about flexibility. As a result, viewers get eyefuls of supple, leotard-clad flesh sparkling with body glitter as female gymnasts gyrate for their floor routines, flashing their huge cheerleader-esque smiles and poses for the crowd.

While mere athletic ability is enough to make a male gymnast’s routine impressive, female gymnasts must always remain approachable, happy despite pain and, of course, sexual. While forcing female Olympic athletes to be sexy eye candy for male viewers during competition is beyond annoying (see women’s beach volleyball and their barely-there ‘uniforms’), it is the age of the female gymnasts that makes their sexualization more perverse.

Many allege that women’s gymnastics is not only a sexual sport for some viewers, but for the coaches of the athletes themselves. Former gymnast Jennifer Sey recently revealed a semi-secret underworld of sexual misconduct between athletes and coaches in her book Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams.

“We lived in an environment where there was some illicit behavior suspected, and none of the adults would intervene,” Sey said in an April interview with Salon magazine. “Nobody cared enough about (us) to dig into it.”

Though most viewers are not watching Olympics gymnastics to spot swaths of young gymnasts’ flesh or enjoy — to quote Bissinger — the “voyeuristic fantasy” of “these older-men little-girl relationships” between coaches and athletes, there is no denying that these elements are mixed into the sport and indeed an appeal for certain spectators.

Many things need to change before watching Olympics women’s gymnastics will no longer be marked by guilty pangs over undercurrents of youth objectification and sexual malfeasance.

Maybe the female gymnasts’ events need to change, or perhaps their training should start at a later age. The solutions are unclear and hard to pinpoint, as is deciding whether the heedless attitude toward victory is simply endemic to Olympic competition.

Renee Sessions is majoring in creative writing.