If you have been reading this blog, you know that I am somewhatconflicted about the Olympics. There is the beauty of the games, and anugly pervasive undercurrent that can leave you queasy. It’s like eating atMcDonalds: so tasty at first, so nauseating upon reflection.
If the Olympics are McDonalds, then women’s gymnastics is withoutquestion the Big Mac. There is the remarkable, CGI-like athleticism byall the young women involved. Then there is the knowledge that thecompetitors have had their bodies and health manipulated and warped so theycan execute on the springboard.
Last night of course was what Sports Illustrated‘s EM Swift called "themarquee event of these Beijing Games" the women’s gymnastics team finalswhere China and the US went head-to-head. China won, and in astaggering act of hypocrisy, all that US national team coordinator MarthaKárolyi and her husband Béla (banned from coaching the team forunspecified reasons) could do was bellow about how the Chinese teamviolated age violations and cheated their way to the gold. (Béla callsthe Chinese gymnasts "half people.") The media has run with this,raising hell with accusations that the Chinese were using several gymnastsunder the age of 16. The Chinese coach, Lu Shanzen smartly responded,"If you think our girls are little because of looks, then maybe youshould think the Europeans and Americans are strong because of doping."
Let’s forget the terrible irony that the media is all too concernedabout Chinese gymnasts who aren’t 16 but have turned a blind eye to theway Chinese child labor has been used to prepare Beijing for the Olympicgames. 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 ofthe "4-foot nothing gymnast", dramatically and irrevocably transformingtheir 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 wastruly a woman’s sport….[In 1976] 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci clutched ababy doll after scoring the first perfect 10.0 in Olympic history. Shewas 5 feet tall and weighed 85 pounds. The decline in age among Americangymnasts since Comaneci’s victory is startling. In 1976 the six USOlympic gymnasts were, on average, 17 and a half years old, stood 5 feetthree and a half inches and weighed 106 pounds. By the 1992 Olympics inBarcelona, the average US Olympic gymnast was 16-years-old, stood 4 feet9 inches and weighed 83 pounds, a year younger, 6 inches shorter and 23pounds 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.