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   Modern gymnastics - growing pains


Is gymnastics a form of child abuse masquerading as sport? Does it destroy the health and stunt the growth of young girls? Former gymnast Rebecca Seal investigates the dangers as well as the addictive thrills of a sport she loved but which, she believes, left her shorter by four inches and struggling with permanent injuries.

Gymnastics is the most demanding and ruthless of all sports for young girls. Over the past decade several theories have been put forward suggesting that not only does the sport favour small, slight girls but that it can actually make them short. The consequence of being a female gymnast is, potentially, to be significantly shorter than average.

All competitive sports contain an element of risk, but gymnastics is unusual, I think, in encouraging children to push themselves even when they are injured. For a gymnast, the arrival of puberty can be the end of an impossibly short career. The extra inches, or the pounds of fat can change you from a reliable, taut little performer into a gangly, clumsy lump who loses all sense of fluency and movement.

The truth about gymnastics is that many young girls are prepared to go to extreme measures to retain the pre-pubertal shape of the world's most successful performers. Little Nadia Comaneci, from Romania, followed Korbut to the 1976 Montreal Olympics and, for her astonishing routine on the uneven bars, scored the first perfect 10 - and won three gold medals. She was 14, 4ft 11in and weighed only 6st 2lb.

From then on coaches and girls alike realised that a smaller gymnast meant a better gymnast. In 1956, the world's two top gymnasts were 35 and 21 years old. But in 1976, gymnasts weighed an average of 7st 7lb, stood 5ft 3in and were 17 years old. By 1992 their average weight was just 6st 4lb, with the average height having dropped six inches. The average age was 16. The 'child champion' phenomenon was born.

Parents and indeed the girls themselves need to be aware that a consequence of restricting their calorific intake and training for more hours a week than most adults work could be long-term damage to their stature. In a bid to mitigate the effect of such intense pressures, the minimum age for competing at Olympic level was raised to 16 for the 2000 Games in Sydney. In theory, older gymnasts can cope better with competitive life but, as Bass points out, 'this just means that gymnasts have got to keep going longer and go to whatever lengths to maintain their pre-pubertal shape longer'. Which means more eating disorders, longer delayed growth and, most important, more injuries.


Olga Korbut
As a 17-year-old she won international fame with two individual golds and one as part of the Soviet Union's team at the 1972 Olympics. But the gymnast from what is now independent Belarus later claimed that her coach, Renald Knysh, raped her before a competition. Korbut emigrated to the United States in 1991 and, in 2002, her house was ransacked by bailiffs after her mortgage was left unpaid. Her possessions were pitched into the street and her Olympic medals apparently stolen in the confusion.

Soon after, Korbut was found guilty of shoplifting in Atlanta and fined $300, although she maintains that she was simply pushing her trolley to the door to fetch her purse from the car. As part of the investigation her house was searched and police found forged banknotes worth around 25,000, about which she was questioned but not charged. She now teaches gymnastics.

Dominique Moceanu

The 4ft 6in pixie who competed as one of the 'Magnificent Seven' US gold-medal winning team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Moceanu acrimoniously divorced her parents and attained legal status as an adult in 1998 when she was 17. She accused her father, who was an old friend of coach Bela Karolyi, of living off her 1.5 million earnings as a gymnast, although he claimed it was held in a trust for her.

Although the case was settled out of court, her father became obsessive, stalking her and paying a private detective to follow her. Moceanu took out a court order to prevent him coming near her and during the case made accusations that he had physically and mentally abused her throughout her life, as well as leaving her in debt. Although she officially retired from the sport in 2000, she now hopes to make a comeback in 2006.


   read the full story from Observer newspaper site: "Growing pains" and Tales from the vaults .

   Related stories: "Gymnasts in pain"
  An extensive survey of current and former elite U.S. female gymnasts reveals a culture in which pain and suffering are acceptable risks in the quest for success. Pressure on female gymnasts to reach the elite level can start a painful slide toward health issues later in their lives.
Romanian Gymnastics News Archive.

  
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