Is Training Gymnasts Equal to Child Abuse?

Katie O'Connor

Advocates for Children
College Park Scholars
University of Maryland at College Park

        Kerri Strug captivated the world with her courageous, yet very risky second vault at last year’s summer Olympics in Atlanta. The thousands of people in the stadium stood and cheered as if she was someone who just saved the world. Spectators at home cried with her, not for her pain, but because the vault showed courage and an unselfish devotion to the team. Unfortunately, not everyone shared the same emotions of sheer joy and admiration that most of the country did. Many people have raised the question, "Was it raw courage or just another form of sport-sanctioned child abuse?" (Starr 42).

        This issue surfaced in the public eye at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. The problem did exist previously, but not very many people knew about it. Nutritionists, doctors and even spectators noticed a severe decline in the height and weight of all the gymnasts. The young ladies of the United States team were on average "age 16, height 4-9 ½, and weight 83" (Competition Grows 7). In 1968, Vera Caslavska, the Czechoslovakian wonder, weighed 120 pounds, was 5’5" tall, and was 25 years old when she won four gold and two silver medals (Competition Grows 7). Even the media, who in most circumstances really don’t care what an athlete looks like just as long as the job gets done, were truly concerned. They were the ones who brought this problem out from the shadows and into the newspapers around the country. Syndicated columnist Donald Kaul wrote, "[o]ur best gymnast weighed 69 pounds for crying out loud! Is that normal?" (Competition Grows 7). Since that Olympics, the gymnastics world has been under the watchful eye of the media, the medical field, and parents.

        What defines the conditions that cause these young women to look like young girls? Sports medicine specialists have come up with three symptoms that contribute to the dangerous lives of gymnasts: eating disorders, absent or delayed menstrual periods, and premature osteoporosis caused by weak bones. They have dubbed these "the female athlete triad" (Boodman 10). The gymnasts turn to the eating disorders to bring themselves to a weight that pleases their coach and even the judges of the international competitions. Along with the osteoporosis the young, fragile girls obtain stress fractures easily due to the constant jumping up and down. A poor diet can also contribute to the fractures. 1992 Olympian Betty Okino, one of the famous Bela Karolyi’s star athletes said that during competitions, "[w]e were eating much less than we normally eat. I don’t think it was even a thousand calories a day" (Ryan). Strug’s injury could have been caused by too strenuous of a work out and a poor diet. "Robert Smith, a former college basketball player now working as a sports psychologist in Wellesley, Mass., put it this way: ‘…it says you really need to sacrifice your safety, maybe even your life, for something that is essentially a game’" (Gregory 10). There are psychological problems that go along with the intense and dangerous training as well. The coach and the other gymnasts that the girls train with become, essentially, their whole world. Ian Tofler, a psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans said, "They socialize with other gymnasts and their life has a unidimensional quality. At age 17 or 18 they feel that the most important part of their life is over. Gymnastics is all that they have ever known." (Boodman 12)

        The argument over whether training elite gymnasts is equal to child abuse is debated by two parties, the first of which is people of the medical profession and those who have directly dealt with these abusive situations, such as retired athletes and their parents. The other side is supported by the athletes and coaches themselves who say that the intense workouts are in no way abusive. The professionals and spectators that saw the sudden physical change in the gymnasts at the Barcelona Olympics and finally found out about the eating disorders and menstrual problems, feel very strongly that the coaches are very much to blame for this dangerous and even deadly problem. They criticize coaches such Bela Karolyi for pushing his gymnasts too hard and causing them to turn to anorexia and bulimia to satisfy his every demand. On several occasions he would call the girls names like "pregnant goat" or "butterball" (Ryan). The girls that were coached by him and have since left the sport, feel that he was a very big part of the reason why they were so unhealthy. Erica Stokes, one of Karolyi’s prodigies, "had become an expert at vomiting throwing up became Erica’s solution to satisfying both herself and Karolyi" (Ryan). Even stars like Mary Lou Retton have said that the king of women’s gymnastics put a lot of pressure on her: "Retton has said that Karolyi repeatedly told her she was fat" (Ryan). Karolyi is not the only coach that has been blamed for pushing the gymnasts beyond their capabilities. Al Fong was the coach of the late Christy Henrich, an Olympic hopeful that had her dreams shattered by anorexia and bulimia. In an interview before her death, Christy expressed that Fong had called her "the Pillsbury Dough Boy" (Boodman 9). Doctors know from factual information that the numerous hours of training are causing severe problems. They feel that if the gymnasts do not start to treat their bodies normally, permanent side effects could evolve: In a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine today, a panel of doctors claimed the extreme demands of training to become an Olympic gymnasts can be the socially acceptable equivalent of child abuse…. ‘At its worst, the sport can result in serious, life-endangering physical and emotional disabilities.’" (Kastor C3) The media, who is a crucial part of this debate, also feel that the parents of the athletes are to blame. "Without question, many gym dads are as obsessed with achieving success for their children as Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was for his." "Dr. Jim Pivarnik, an exercise physiologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, says parents need to ‘make sure it’s for the kid and not for them. Look in the mirror and ask: ‘Do they love to do it, or do they love to do it because I love it when they do?’" (Press 23). Reporters, journalists, and advertisers are not clear of blame. They are responsible for glorifying pain and making it seem that "…if an athlete fails to play with injury, we are quick to brand him or her a wimp" (Gregory 10). Many of the big companies of our time, mainly sponsors of these sports, portray athletes overcoming painful obstacles. They seem to think that putting oneself through stress, physical and mental, will produce a better competitor. "Even Nike…praises pain in a commercial that flashes images of boxers with bloddied faces, runners falling and grimacing, and some sorry competitor vomiting. Just do it. No pain, no gain. Whatever it takes. What does not kill me makes me stronger" (Gregory 10). Overall the group of people that do believe that gymnastics is abusive feel that there are many people to blame for the injuries, disabilities, and even deaths of these talented, young athletes. They want something done about the problem because it is ruining the lives of potentially wonderful women.

        The other side of this debate, the one that says that training gymnasts is not abusive, is supported by some of the athletes and the coaches that are under the watchful eyes of the people who believe it is abusive. Betty Okino stated, It’s not child abuse. Because if it were child abuse, they would have to be tying us down and holding us in the gym and not letting us leave and forcing us to do gymnastics and not eat. And when we were in Houston, we lived in our own homes. We could have eaten whatever we wanted, although they did weigh us in, so you had to watch what you ate (Ryan). Many coaches believe, that in Kerri Strug’s situation, she knew what she was doing. Grace Ortiz, a coach at Silver Spring Gymnastics said, "I’m sure, if she couldn’t make it, she would say, ‘I cannot’" (Kastor C3). There are even some medical professionals who believe that Kerri did the right thing and the athletes have had plenty of experience with medical examinations. " ‘Athletes at this level have probably been evaluated by physicians and trainers hundreds of times,’ said Benjamin Schaffer, director of sports medicine at George Washington University Medical Center. ‘They usually have a good sense of whether they can or cannot continue" (Kastor C3). A few other supporters of gymnastics and its methods of training feel that these gymnasts, young and fragile as they are, are in better shape than most of the other kids their age. "[Y]oung athletes are much more physically fit than other kids in their class," observed Paul Dyment, chief of pediatrics at the Maine Medical Center in Portland and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine (Beil 191). There are a lot more people against the intense training of gymnasts, but the people that do support it, do present a good story.

        The fact that young women and girls are getting seriously hurt and even dying from this sport is terrifying. That is why there are so many people who are fighting for the protection of the athletes to lessen the burden on them. But the other side of the debate does not want to see very many changes done because, as of right now, something must be going right if the United States team is doing so well. This issue will probably be discussed and argued over for a long time, and hopefully there will be less tragedies from the sport of gymnastics.


Beil, Laura. "Of Joints and Juveniles." Science News 17 September 1988: 190-2.

Boodman, Sandra G. "Medical Costs of Being Young, Female and the Best." Washington         Post 30 July 1996: WH 9+.

Gregory, Ted. "No Pain, No Fame: Line Blurry Between Playing, Paying." Chicago        Tribune 28 July 1996, sec. 3: 10+.

Hersh, Phil. "As Competition Grows, Gymnasts Shrink." Chicago Tribune November        1992, sec. 3: 1+.

Hersh, Phil. "Starving to Win." Chicago Tribune 9 November 1992, sec. 3: 7.

Kastor, Elizabeth. "A Question of Balance." Washington Post 25 July 1996: C1+.

Nodin, Merrel. "Dying to Win." Sports Illustrated 8 August 1994: 52-8.

Press, Aric. "Old Too Soon, Wise Too Late?" Newsweek 10 August 1992: 22-4.

Ryan, Joan. "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes." Cosmopolitan Sept. 1995: n.pag.

Starr, Mark. "Leap of Faith." Newsweek 5 August 1996: 42-8.

This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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