In celebration of the beginning of the Olympics, I finally picked up a book I've had around and meant to read for a long time. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters is journalist Joan Ryan's expose of the treatment of young figure skating and gymnastic Olympics hopefuls in the 80s and early 90s. Though it seems somewhat outdated, having been written when the Harding-Kerrigan scandal was still news, the book is no less chilling twelve years later as it was when it was written.
Basically, the book is about legalized and accepted child abuse. Girls who are thirteen, twelve, nine, being forced to train through injuries, berated for their weights, pumped full of drugs so that they can keep going, encouraged to leave school, and even assisted in their eating disorders, all for the sake of a slim chance at participating in the Olympics. Joan Ryan's book is sympathetic towards the girls themselves (she talks mostly to former skaters and gymnasts, not those who are currently participating in their sports), but pretty relentless in going after their parents and coaches, particularly legendary gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi. These people, Ryan argues, value winning far over the health and happiness of the girls they parent or train, to the long-term detriment of those girls.
Each story featured in the book is more horrific than the last. Teen gymnast Julissa Gomez was encouraged to perform a vault she was not comfortable with, fell and broke her neck, and spent the rest of her short life completely incapacitated, unable to move or speak. Christy Henrich, who trained at Al Fong's gym with Julissa until her accident, became an anorexic while she was training as a gymnast and the disease eventually killed her. Both of these stories are just examples of what could happen to any gymnast, at least the way Ryan tells it--nearly all the women with whom she speaks remember being pressured to train or compete when they are injured or not comfortable, being scrutinized for her weight, and taking drastic measures to stay unnaturally small and thin. The skaters to whom Ryan speaks face similar pressures, though their sport is not quite so dangerous. In her discussion of skating, Ryan also spends some time exploring the class dimension that became so apparent in ice skating when Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were both trying to be America's sweetheart.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this book is long on anecdotes and short on evidence. Ryan explains at the outset that she is focusing mostly on the women who did not make it to the gold, the girls whose sacrifices did not pay off. While this may seem to skew the story she tells, it seems fair to me given that the media mostly does focus on the winners. Certainly when reading this while everyone is gearing up for the summer Olympics it seems like the story that doesn't usually get told.
Looking at this year's roster of "women's" Olympic gymnasts, the stories in Ryan's book scare me. Though the U.S. team is a bit older than they were in the 90s (mostly of the team are in their late teens), they are so small. The current age for Olympic eligibility is 16, and some members of the Chinese team (the U.S.'s biggest rival) were scrutinized for possibly being under that age. Nothing seems to have changed.
And yet, will I watch? I don't know. I can't imagine feeling good about it. I believe these girls deserve better. Even a girl who brings home a gold medal deserves better. She deserves a childhood.