Are little-girl gymnasts at the Olympics a measure of glory or sick exploitation? Readers respond to King Kaufman's "Women's Gymnastics Should Grow Up."

By Salon Staff
Published August 19, 2004 10:02PM (EDT)

[Read "Women's Gymnastics Should Grow Up," by King Kaufman.]

I want to thank King Kaufman for his comments on women's gymnastics.

My dad was an Olympic coach years ago for judo, a sport in which the average female athlete was 24 to 26 years old and fully developed. He told me horror stories of the "little girls" in gymnastics that would go days without eating before a performance, binge and purge, and constantly be told by coaches that their "fat asses" looked awful on the balance beam. Thank you for bringing up an important issue that is long overdue.

-- Sherry Wallace

Much as I decry the "little girls in pretty boxes" syndrome, I believe the reason why gymnasts are petite is based on simple physics: The smaller you are, the shorter your axis from your center of gravity, and the easier it is to balance and tumble.

The other factor is that strength does not increase proportionally to size, so smaller people have a higher strength to weight ratio -- which is critical for women, since they're less muscular, especially in terms of upper body strength, than men. All other things being equal, a smaller woman is always going to have a competitive advantage in a sport that requires lifting her body weight and/or rotating. You also failed to point out that male gymnasts are much shorter than average as well, for the same reason.

And except for endurance events, women always peak earlier than men physically -- think about all those teenage female swimmers. Again, it's just biology: Women go through puberty earlier, reach their adult growth earlier. By the time they hit 20 they have to fight against their bodies' natural desire to increase body fat in anticipation of pregnancy.

What I was pleased to note in the Athens Olympics is that though the women are small, they don't look frail or anorexic.

-- Ruth Lafler

I have no problem with young girls being allowed to compete. In a sport, that is.

I do have a problem with young girls parading around in a puerile fantasy. Kaufman's article put its finger on exactly the source of all that is sick in that sport: the politics of the judging.

Men's gymnastics is a sport. Women's looks like a pageant to delight the Ramseys of this world. It was not all that long ago when it was different. Olga Korbut was more of an outlier in '72.

-- Paul Hewitt

I agree that little girls should not be used the way they currently are in "women's" gymnastics.

Much is said about the horrors of high school grads going straight to the pros in other sports (B-ball in particular), but why is it that in gymnastics it's not a horror for little girls to compete as women?

-- Jeremy M.

The fact of the matter is that young girls' bodies weigh less and are softer than their older counterparts. Gymnastics is not a sport of stamina. It's a sport of incredible bursts of strength that put enormous stresses on the human body. Older bodies are simply not capable of making the same leaps (and subsequent landings). Most fit, athletic 25-year-olds would quickly develop fatigue fractures from similar feats.

Young, powerful, skilled women are simply better suited to the sport than older women. The sport does not need fixing. That is the sport.

I find it bizarre that Kaufman brings the sexuality (or the sexual objectification) of these girls into the conversation, going out of his way to condemn the sport and its domination by "cutesy ... little girls." "Sick and wrong."

Well, I think the sportswriter doth protest too much. I see this column as quasi-confessional. A man trying to absolve his own guilt over something he feels, and which most men feel: happy and contented to watch cutesy, glittery little girls flip and hop around all over the place.

-- Jeb Smith

King Kaufman consistently provides some of the sharpest political analysis in your magazine, while writing from the sports desk. He's done it again.

Last night, as I watched the wrap-up of the women's gymnastics, I turned to my wife and said, "This is sick." The skimpy costumes, the glitter, the makeup, and the tender age and tiny size of the girls makes this more like kiddie porn than athletics.

Taking children, exploiting them with brutal training schedules, exhibiting them like prettified cuts of beef and then tossing them into the obsolescence bin by the time they reach 20 is an international scandal, not a spectator sport.

Where is the family-values crowd when they're actually needed? Thank goodness the Salon sports desk at least has a little moral compass!

-- Ken Erfourth

I myself was a gymnast years ago -- and a little girl with a passion that burned so hot, probably nothing could have possibly matched it except another little girl's passion for her horse. (In my case, the horse I drove with both great love and ferocity was my own body.)

Alas, it was not I who left gymnastics but gymnastics that left me, when a completely unexpected event occurred: my period. Along with this came weight gain (up to a whopping 110 pounds) and a total destruction of my aerodynamically perfect proportions (i.e., I suddenly had breasts and hips). I felt a little like an Artemis who blinked and had become Aphrodite, entirely against her will. It was only years after this, having finally grown mentally into my own womanhood, that I perceived the childishness and triteness of the sport.

Along with the need to achieve greatness before the onset of pubescence, another reason that female gymnasts are young is that the unusually punishing quality of gymnastics limits an athlete's shelf life. Most people have no idea of the pounding, intense and frequent contortions of backs and joints, and other tortures that everyday gymnastics training requires. One reason I have trouble watching gymnastics nowadays is that almost everything they do every moment makes me think "Ow." (OK, I'm a wuss -- I don't like boxing either.)

I don't mean any disrespect to the very talented and fierce young female athletes competing in this year's games; I just haven't enjoyed the sport since I grew up. Because elite-level gymnasts are largely children -- children who have been deprived of many normal growing-up experiences while they have been single-mindedly laboring away in cold gyms -- its stars move with little of the sophisticated artistic panache (relatively speaking) of figure skaters, or the wild directness of basketball or soccer players. Also, for some reason judges -- who along with coaches and parents are the adults in gymnastics culture -- reward the girls for their cutesy-pie moves. So even 19-year-olds end up with the expressive style of much younger kids.

I'm not sure how to "fix" gymnastics. The muscular power it would take to self-propel an average-size woman high into the air would have to belong to a formidable Amazon -- cool! -- but she still could not twist and turn fast enough to compete with the sprites.

The answer may be to back off and let the sprites have their exclusive niche. The world of women's athletics is big enough now that there is something for just about everyone, from the biggest to the littlest and all the in-betweens. So what I watch is up to me.

-- Michelle Jarrett

Salon Staff

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