From the grace and precision of the Chinese to the velocity and impetus the Americans display twisting and turning their bodies over and over in the air, no wonder gymnastics is regarded as an art form. From the outside, individual routines appear to be a beautiful expression of character and talent, made possible by teamwork, happiness and a united love for the sport. But what happens when the doors of the gyms close, and the masks gymnasts are forced to wear on the competition floor come off? I was a high level gymnast for 8 years, now an international athlete, and through the help of The OpinionPanel Community, I have found my voice to tell you about my experiences.
The problems in elite gymnastics are deep-rooted and originated long ago. Take these examples; Elena Mukhina and Christy Henrich. Elena Mukhina, the 1979 world-champion, was pressured by her coach to perform a Thomas Salto (now a banned skill). She competed it, fell and broke her neck. Afterwards, she said “…my injury could have been expected… I had said more than once that I would break my neck doing that element. I had hurt myself badly several times but he (coach Mikhail Klimenko) just replied, people like me “don’t break their necks.” She died at the age of 46 from complications of quadriplegia.
Christy Henrich was a world-class gymnast who died from Anorexia Nervosa at the age of 22, after a judge at an international competition told her she was “fluffy” and “needed to lose weight”. Her mother was quoted after her death; “The first thing (other athletes) told her was if there’s something you want to eat, eat it and throw it up. That’s the first thing you learn when you’re on the U.S. national team.”
Although now dated, these are very sad, but very real examples of the problems gymnasts face, even today. Trying to pursue these ideals and level of skill needed to succeed, gymnasts send injury related statistics flying much higher than their bodies.
More recently, in 2005, Sir Matthew Pinsent on his return from observing Chinese gymnasts in training said, “It was a pretty disturbing experience. I was really shocked by some of what was going on.” He also believed children were in pain while training and that they were being “pushed beyond acceptable limits in pursuit of excellence”.
Having been a gymnast myself, I have to agree with past evidence and with the observations of Sir Matthew Pinsent. The picture gymnastics paints – of shiny leotards, pretty hair and huge gold trophies – is very different to the reality of what goes on. Bullying, as 2012 Olympic Champion Gabby Douglas has revealed, is also very prominent in gymnastics, and the false glow of teamwork and happiness very quickly melts away when you look inside a training gym.
Gymnastics is a fun, exciting hobby that thousands of young children start each year. Happily running into the gym with their friends at 6 years old, the parents stand by oblivious to what the future may hold. Despite gymnastics giving you strength, flexibility and the determination to win, I strongly believe it should be used as a starting block for other sports and nothing else. The weight of unhealthy views and unfair expectations put on gymnasts from their peers, parents and coaches are dragging down everything sport stands for.
Coming from an ex-gymnast and now international athlete, please believe me when I say that we, as a nation, as families and as individuals, need to get our youngsters out of this monstrosity and into sports that promote true happiness and well-being. It is an issue that I, for one, am no longer willing to ignore.