Women’s Gymnastics: The Big Mac of the Beijing Games

The Olympics and I have what you could call a conflicted relationship. There’s the beauty of the games, the enjoyment of sports that don’t normally make it onto the sports landscape. Then there’s that ugly pervasive undercurrent that can leave you queasy. It’s like eating at McDonalds: so tasty at first, so nauseating upon reflection.

If the Olympics are McDonalds, then women’s gymnastics is without question the Big Mac. There is the remarkable, CGI-like athleticism by all the young women involved. Then there is the knowledge that the competitors have had their bodies and health manipulated and warped so they can execute on the springboard.

This past week saw what Sports Illustrated’s EM Swift called "the marquee event of these Beijing Games" the women’s gymnastics team finals where China and the US went head-to-head. China won, and in a staggering act of hypocrisy, all that US national team coordinator Martha Károlyi and her husband Béla (banned from coaching the team for unspecified reasons) could do was bellow about how the Chinese team violated age violations and cheated their way to the gold. (Béla calls the Chinese gymnasts "half people.") The media has run with this, raising hell with accusations that the Chinese were using several gymnasts under the age of 16. The Chinese coach, Lu Shanzen smartly responded, "If you think our girls are little because of looks, then maybe you should think the Europeans and Americans are strong because of doping."

Let’s forget the terrible irony that the media is all too concerned about Chinese gymnasts who aren’t 16 but have turned a blind eye to the way Chinese child labor has been used to prepare Beijing for the Olympic games. Béla and Martha Károlyi launching these attacks is like hearing George W. Bush criticize Russia for invading Georgia: they simply have no moral standing whatsoever. The Károlyis’ success in gymnastics is unparalleled. They have coached nine Olympic champions, fifteen world champions, sixteen European medalists and six US national champions. Yet to deal with the Károlyis is to deal with the devil. Their reputation for starving young girls on 900 calorie a day diets and verbally abusing them so they can be light enough to stick the landing, is infamous. There have even been reports suggesting that Béla has had young girls practice on broken bones. As 1996 Olympian Dominique Moceanu said last month, "If it was up to the athletes, [the Károlyis would have been banned from the sport] a long time ago." She also once said, "I’m sure Béla saw injuries, but if you were injured, Béla didn’t want to see it…You had to deal with it. I was intimidated. He looked down on me. He was 6-feet something, and I was 4-foot nothing."

The Károlyis were the driving force behind the dominance of the "4-foot nothing gymnast", dramatically and irrevocably transforming their sport.

As Joan Ryan wrote in her harrowing book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes:

"In 1956 the top two Olympic female gymnasts were 35 and 29 years old. In 1968 gold medalist Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia was 26-years-old, stood 5 feet 3 inches and weighed 121 pounds. Back then, gymnastics was truly a woman’s sport….[In 1976] 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci clutched a baby doll after scoring the first perfect 10.0 in Olympic history. She was 5 feet tall and weighed 85 pounds. The decline in age among American gymnasts since Comaneci’s victory is startling. In 1976 the six US Olympic gymnasts were, on average, 17 and a half years old, stood 5 feet three and a half inches and weighed 106 pounds. By the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the average US Olympic gymnast was 16-years-old, stood 4 feet 9 inches and weighed 83 pounds, a year younger, 6 inches shorter and 23 pounds lighter than her counterparts of 16 years before."

Béla Károlyi of course trained Comaneci and later defected, took his act to the states and hasn’t looked back, making millions on the brittle backs of young women who bodies are misshapen on account of his ruthless pursuit of gold. Yes, women’s gymnastics can make you queasy all right. And the thought of Béla Károlyi, bending his huge frame over to get in the face and scream at young girls, is enough to really make you sick.

[Dave Zirin is the author of  the forthcoming “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” (The New Press.. Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected] Contact him at [email protected]]

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