Monday, August 25, 2008

Diving, eating disorders, and age

During the Olympics, I didn't follow that much of the diving--just kind of here and there. However, I did watch the women's 10m platform finals and was quite startled at how underweight the two sixteen years old Chinese divers, Chen Ruolin and Wang Xin, appeared to be. It's reported their BMI is only 14.5, and they are only 4'6 or so. You can do the math there. Each won an Olympic medal respectfully--the gold to Chen, the bronze to Wang. A Canadian veteran diver, Emilie Heymans, took the silver. I believe she was just out of the medals in Athens, so this was a sweet victory for her.

So what was the winning recipe for these divers? No dinner for a year. Pretty scary isn't? In any sport, not refueling your body only harms it in the long run. For awhile, the body will adapt, however, eventually a crash and burn is inevitable, ultimately with the possibility of death. And in sports like gymnastics and diving where an athlete is jumping, twisting, and somersaulting at great heights, this not only can be highly dangerous but also lead to disaster.

Apparently, Chen's and Wang's coach, Yu Fen, does not care. She only wants to win. Here's a statement she has said about Wang.

"Even though she's a world champion and technically impeccable, an abrupt fluctuation in weight could be seriously damaging for Wang."

The Chinese coaching rationale behind this (besides winning) is that girls who enter puberty will gain weight (duh, inevitable really, that's all a part of human nature) and essentially make larger splashes. It's even been reported that some coaches have tried to stunt their athletes' growth. One diver, Jia Tong, winner of the synchronized diving with Chen in the 2005 Worlds, did not have her growth stunted. However, she paid a price with a "surge" in body weight and was excluded from the Olympic team. Whether it was due to this completely or not, we'll never know. However, there's a suspicion it was due to her weight possibly.

I think this assumption about splash is completely false. Although a lower body weight may have some accountability for hitting the water with little splash, much more of it is based on good technique and how vertical the diver is going into the water.

The article above does not say whether Chen took on the self-imposed starvation herself or followed coach's orders, but her reward for winning...indulging in a big dinner with her family and friends. That should never be the case, and it's sad to see a young girl (everyone included here) think this way. I'm sure many of us have had those similar thought patterns of exercising X amount, thus allowing ourselves to have X amount for dinner. It's faulty logic. Bodies need food for fuel. It's what keeps our systems working properly at optimum levels.

The other thing with all this is that it just reinforces the idea that a diver needs to be small, thin, and starve herself in order to win. That's just simply sad. I should also note that not all the Chinese divers on this Olympic team were too thin but quite a few, both men and women, were borderline underweight, according to their bios on the Olympic site.


Besides these divers' body weights, I'm wondering if there should also be age restrictions for the assurance of the physical and mental health of these athletes. Of course, we know that can be a sticky situation as was seen by the presumption (or likelihood) of the underage Chinese gymnasts. However, according to this article, here were some other very young athletes at these Olympics. Most were divers or swimmers with one being only 12 years old. How come we didn't hear about this at the Olympics? My feeling is that since there aren't regulations in either of these sports, a big fuss was not made.

There's no doubt that these young athletes have talent. However, athletes, like the rest of us are human and go through the changes of life both physically and mentally, or I should say, they should be allowed to. As coaches of these young athletes, especially those who have moved away from home, there should be some nurture. In my opinion, this also includes making sure the well being of the athlete's body, mind, and soul is intact and capable of the stress and pressure of competition. It shouldn't be solely about winning medals which unfortunately seems to be the case in many situations.

Mass change of rules and regulations don't happen without an uproar, but it's highly doubtful there will be one in the sport of diving. Instead, it's all just swept underneath the rug, with a hush of silence even though we all already know the facts.


Anonymous said...

I can't say I am surprised despite how sad this is. Many Olympic hopefuls will do anything if it will give them the slightest edge to win, especially if it's not illegal by Olympic standards.

Tiptoe said...

Charlyyn, I agree with you that it isn't surprising, but doesn't make it right either. You don't hear about it as much in diving though, at least not in the main public. It's just a sad thing that will likely just continue to perpetuate.

Didactic Diva said...

Hi. I ws just Googling this quite under-addressed issue and came upon your post; which I must say is one of the more (if not most) thought out and thorough of what sad little coverage I have found.

What made me almost weep was the televison commentators on NBC and whatsherface's uncritical acceptance of the Party Line on Ms Wang i.e. that she was chosen because she "didn't like to eat" and proceeded to speak as if that was something admirable rather than perhaps a sign that something is rotten in the state of Divemark.

So again, thank you.

Tiptoe said...

Didactic Diva, thank you for your comments. I'm glad you appreciated my post. You are right this isn't an upfront issue in diving which is sad indeed.

I agree with you about the commentator's comments. She may not have meant it that way, but for those who caught it, the perception was likely different.