… or at least significantly changed.
Sir Matthew Pinsent is today reporting back from China about observing the training of young gymnasts for this Olympics, and the one after. The BBC reports:
He claimed children were in pain while training, and said: “It was a pretty disturbing experience. I was really shocked by some of what was going on.” …Pinsent felt children were being pushed beyond acceptable limits in pursuit of excellence and was disappointed that it appeared to be regarded as necessary.
But I would suggest that while China might be taking this to greater extremes than you normally see in the West, the basic problem lies with the sport. This is particularly a problem in women’s, or I should say “girls’”, gymnastics.
These are children – usually before puberty, or with all signs of puberty disguised by huge amounts of exercise and a restricted diet – doing things that only such small lithe bodies can do. Female gymnasts are usually washed out for serious competition by the age of 18, if not 16.
And to do these things even the girls have to put in vast numbers of hours of physically hard training – and many of course will fall by the wayside with injuries before they even see the inside of a competition hall – labelled as failures as 10, or 12, or 14. And what sort of education will they have received for other careers?
Oddly enough, the men – who perform different types of routines on different apparatus – are usually in their late teens or early 20s, much like athletes in other sports.
Aside from the sexualisation of routines – girls are expected to smile pleasingly while performing the most amazing physical feats – there’s a question about a sport that ensures all of its participants are washed up before the age of 18.
The answer surely is to limit the age of participation – should children of 12 really be competing in Olympics and World Championships? And should the competition really require, and be judged, on the basis of what a child’s body can do? Isn’t this child labour, and child abuse – not just in China, but everywhere?