Not surprisingly, I’ve been glued to the partial telecasts of the London 2012 Olympic gymnastics competition – despite the horrific commentary by people who should know better Elfi. I hope that enough time has passed since Gabby Douglas’s soaring all-around victory that discussing the not-so-upbeat side of the sport in no way cuts into her glory. But several friends have wondered what I thought of this article – about the recent tell-all memoir of Dominique Moceanu. I think she’s as brave as Gabby for speaking out. She’s right – what medal-hungry Americans accept as training is child abuse by any other name. That growling, media-clamoring bear-of-a-coach we all know as Bela Karolyi (and his other half Marta) is only one of a string of foreign-born gymnastics coaches who make great gymnasts overseas and then impose the same system on our girls. They’re proven champion-builders (Bela and Marta started with Nadia, remember her?) but it’s a warped system. The injuries the system promotes, which is what Dominique’s book deals with, are only part of the picture. Coaches who try to recreate Eastern European gymnasts on American bodies also enforce anorexia. And it’s probably even worse in Rhythmic Gymnastics where the Eastern European waif-thin body type still dominates the sport.
I know because I was scarred by it myself. At Olympic Training Camp in Colorado Springs the U.S. Rhythmic National group-routine team was ordered to run laps before and after each practice – the first run to sweat off any lingering effects of dinner the night before our morning weigh-in; the second one to sweat off any sips of water we drank during six hours of practise. Every day I didn’t lose weight I was threatened with expulsion from the team and I didn’t think my parents could afford a plane ticket home. It took years after a broken back ended my rhythmic career to even get a monthly cycle back, let alone a healthy attitude toward food. A disgusted gynecologist told my mother I might not ever be able to have children. A psychologist told me I had a form of PTSD. I’ll never forget a meal served to me by the Bela of rhythmic gymnastics in my day – Alla Svirsky. It was the night before my first World Championship in Strasburg, France. My parents were thousands of unsuspecting miles away. And I was told to eat a tomato for dinner, only a tomato, so that I’d lose another half pound or so before the judges saw me. I fainted three times during the competition, which was no big deal to our Russian coaches. We all collapsed after every routine but as long as we looked as skinny as the gymnasts they used to train, it was okay by them.
I say all this not out of sour grapes. I survived the sport and went on to a happy and fulfilled life. I still love to watch these competitions, but I can’t help but think if I ever did have a daughter I’d never send her off to train under one of those coaches. Some things never seem to change.