Time magazine just published The Price of Gold, which describes the training regimen of young Chinese Olympic hopefuls. It's disgusting. "Our women can eat bitterness more than women from other countries," said a Chinese government PR creature. Yes, I said PR: public relations. Someone who's job it is to make China look good to the outside world.
Apparently, it's OK to force tiny little girls to live away from their families so that they can be twisted, stretched, pounded, and trained to world-class levels. For the glory of the state. And the little girls can take the training, the sadness, the separation, the intensity because they "eat bitterness" better than little girls from other countries.
Disgusting. Every single Olympics I have the same reaction: these children are having their childhoods ripped away from them. And it's not just the Chinese children--I'm sure it happens here, too.
(Just to be fair-minded: Not all young athletes are coerced into hours of unwanted training. Here's a different take on pre-pubescent athletes, describing tiny jocks that can't wait to get back into the ring or on the mat.)
In 1996 the Olympic committee mandated a 16-year-old age minimum to counteract the Nadia Comenici effect. You remember her--the 14-year-old pipsqueak gymnast with a collection of perfect tens in the 1976 Olympics? She, or more accurately, her coach, Bela Karolyi, ushered in the age of pixie gymnastics featuring pre-pubescent girls with extreme flippability.
But have you seen the Chinese gymnasts this year? Is there any way at all that Yang Yilin is 16 years old? The girl still has gaps in her teeth where a recently-sprung baby tooth has not yet been replaced by a permanent tooth. No way is she 16. Yes, I know her passport and Wikipedia have her birthday falling in 1992. I just don't believe it.
What makes me saddest is that Yilin is just one victim of the Olympic-win-at-all-costs philosophy. And she's one of the very few lucky ones--one with Olympic success and glory, and future financial comfort. What about all the other children? That Time article reported that nearly 400,000 children and young people have been "recruited," most from elementary school, to train at state-run sports academies. Only a few hundred will ever get to the Olympics.
It's disgusting. It's wrong. Maybe my perspective is entirely too Western and kid-centric--but obviously, I can't help that. I'm all in favor of respecting cultures and traditions--but not at such a high cost.
Update: See this article by Greg Couch in the Chicago Sun Times for a stern opinion about Karolyi and the undersized Chinese gymnasts.