Sunday, June 29, 2008

Olympics, gymnastics, and mentality

Official logo of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games
image: wikipedia

The Summer Olympics is fast approaching. This is a controversial Olympics since the site is Beijing, and China has been in the news a lot this year. Nevertheless, whatever your opinion may be of China, I think there needs to be a lot of respect given to the athletes as a whole in general. I'm hoping political differences will be put aside and the true Olympic spirit will prevail throughout these games. After all, that is the theme of the Olympic Games.

Anyway, this post isn't so much about the site of the Olympics, that was just a preface ;-) Many sports are now having their Olympic Trials to see who will make the list to Beijing. Under the American system, it's all objective on that particular day even if you may be a star athlete in your field of sport. Talk about some major pressure! Other countries allow more leniency, so if a star athlete is injured who is likely to medal at the games, the individual can still be on the ticket to Beijing through selective choosing.

Last weekend was the U.S. Olympic Trials in gymnastics. I didn't know it was going to be on, but I was really glad I was able to watch it. In my former life, I was a competitive gymnast, so gymnastics will always hold a dear special place in my heart. Although I do not follow it as closely anymore ( no more gymnastics magazines, taped televised competitions, all the latest gymnast gear, etc.), I do try to watch it when I can. These days, I'm more interested in the psychological aspects of the gymnasts than the sport itself.

Over the years, gymnastics has evolved greatly. In 1997, the age requirement for gymnasts was changed to 16. I don't know if any of you remember in the 1992 Barcelona Games, there was a North Korean gymnast who looked like she was 12 years old! I can't help but think that did not play a role. It was later discovered that the gymnast's birth certificate had been falsified and changed. In 2005, the code of points was changed, following more of the figure skating scoring system with emphasis on difficulty and execution. So for now, no more of the elusive 10.0 which Nadia Comaneci earned in the 1976 Olympics. Now, it's a 17!

I think one of the biggest changes came after the death of Christy Henrich, a world class US gymnast who died in 1994 of multiple organ failure due to her anorexia and bulimia. She had just missed out on making the 1988 Olympics by less than 0.200 tenths. Prior to those Trials, a US judge remarked on her weight which was the catalyst for her weight loss. After her death, several other well known gymnasts like Nadia Comaneci, Cathy Rigby, and Kathy Johnson came out about their own ordeals with eating disorders. Other changes took effect as well. In the mid-90s, media stopped displaying the gymnasts' weights. In 1996, the Athlete Wellness program was formed, educating coaches, nutritionists, psychologists and athletes about the importance of nutrition, the female athlete triad, etc. in the sport.

And in 1995, we can't forget the now what some call infamous book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes by Joan Ryan, was published. It exposed the dark secrets of the sports of elite gymnastics and figure skating. Some found it eye-opening, while others felt it was one-sided and Ryan held a grudge.


There is no doubt that in elite gymnastics, there isn't sacrifice, blood, sport, and tears. Really, this can be said of any activity where someone is at the cream of the crop. Gymnastics and other appearance related sports (cheerleading, diving, wrestling, ballet) seem to be more disconcerting since there is usually a higher emphasis on body image which can lead to risk for eating disorders/disordered eating. Many studies have shown this and too many to cite here.

Besides that, there is a huge mental component in any sport. With the Olympics being a a little over a month away, that pressure rises higher. Even at the conclusion of the trials, only the top two gymnasts (Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin) were guaranteed spots to Beijing. The rest of the gymnasts who are invited go to the Karolyi ranch where a team will be finalized July 20th. Yep, it's definitely some major pin and needle time for these gymnasts.

I also couldn't help but notice several things as I watched the trials. One, the commentators just kept mentioning injury and injury of these gymnasts. Some have come back healed and well, while others are still on the mend but competing anyway. Many times they mentioned Alicia Sacramone and how she was in tears 4 years ago just short of making the team. Though it is likely she will make the team this time around, if she didn't she'd probably be known as the gymnast who didn't make the team twice, or as others might say the horrible "F" word, failure.

I also noticed one gymnast in particular, Ivana Hong, who reminded me a lot of me, it was quite uncanny. Gymnasts often times do have serious faces, but there was something with hers that just yielded to the fact that she places an immense pressure on herself to be perfect. Then there seems to be a trend among parents of gymnasts also being their coaches. That can be a tough relationship and definitely needs to be handled with care.

It'll be interesting to see what happens. The thing about pressure and mental toughness is that they are the characteristics which can be both positive and negative for competitive athletes. I remember in the 1992 Olympics when Kim Zmeskal fell off the balance beam. The crowd was shocked. Then the next day, there were headlines that questioned whether she had succumbed to pressure of the Games or if we were pressuring these young gymnasts too much. If something like that happens again to let's say Shawn Johnson or Nastia Liukin who are heavily favored as all-around contenders at the Games, you bet, there are going to be similar headlines. It's a sad fact, but that is what happens. In some sense, it is true, while in others it is not. And sometimes it's hard even for the athlete to recognize the pressure and who she/he may be performing for.

The other thing I often wonder about these athletes or any after they complete the Games is what happens next? Some continue with training and maybe hope for another Games, others retire from the sport, a few try to get a college scholarship and put in four more years, some move on and do something completely different. Then there are those who don't know what else to do, as gymnastics (or insert any sport here) was their life, their identity. It was their passion (okay, maybe I'm being a little more reflective than I planned here), and it becomes difficult to find a new one. I think it's one reason why many gymnasts go into coaching. It's what they know and also probably love too. Still though, since gymnasts' careers in general end earlier than other sports, it really can be a trying time for them. I think the one positive thing of stopping gymnastics for most of these athletes (and you can't say all of them have disordered eating) is that they go off their stringent diets and eat healthier, have more normal food intakes.

I guess in whatever happens, it is my hope that they find balance, remain healthy, and do what is best for their own sake. Sometimes I want to say to some of these athletes that it is okay to be a little selfish and do what you want to do.


Mindy said...

I was watching last weekend, and was also surprised by how many gymnasts' parents were also their coaches. I can't imagine how tough that could be for both the parents and the children. I was a competitive swimmer in high school and can't imagine having my mom or dad as my coach.

I felt horrible for the girl (can't remember her name) who was on the uneven bars and when she went up and turned around in mid-air, completely missed the bar and came down hard on the mat. I'm glad they have such thick mats, but that still has got to hurt.

zandria said...

It's great to read your perspective on this subject since you were formerly in the gymnastics world. I bet you have a lot of interesting stories!

Juliet said...

I have a love/hate relationship with gymnastics. I am amazed and awed by what those girls can do. Yet, it concerns me deeply that this is another sport where a 20 year-old is looked at as a "has been" or "washed up." I think it's worse in gymnastics than figure skating, but that's probably mainly because gymnastics is even harder on the body of a developing girl.

Your perspective was honest and not biased, which is nice given your experience. Thanks for sharing that!

Tiptoe said...

Mindy, yes, I don't know if I'd be able to really handle one of my parents being my coach. My dad does give advice on running. Some of it I agree with, while the rest I don't, and do my own thing.

The girl who fell, yes, ouch. Falls like that are in no way shape or form fun.

Zandria, thanks for commenting. I was never an elite gymnast but rather ended my career as a Level 9. However, I learned a lot from gymnastics both good and bad. I was also lucky to have a fairly good coach, so I remarkable didn't have body image issues at that time.

Juliet, yes, I can understand the love/hate relationship. It is sad that gymnasts' careers end early and some make it, while others don't. I didn't talk too much about other countries, but in many, they groom them from such an early age to be great. And in the end, they will either make or they don't. If they don't, then they are done with them, and that's it. That is a really sad thing to see.

I appreciate you felt that I was unbiased. I try to look at both sides in every issue.

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