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