Published: Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
Watching the Olympics this summer was an emotional rollercoaster for me. Pride for the Americans who worked hard to earn the gold, secondhand embarrassment when I heard athletes attempt to coherently answer even the most basic interview question (Ryan Lochte, I’m looking at you), and awe over the plethora of insanely chiseled abs (Ryan Lochte, I’m looking at you). The one emotion that might seem surprising, though, was pity. When 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas stood on the podium to receive her gold medal, all I was thinking was, “that poor girl.”
She gets praise for accomplishing so much at such a young age, and it’s true that she worked hard and achieved something great. But I don’t envy her, and do not think the path that she was put on is fair for any child.
Being an Olympic athlete is a career. A life. A major sacrifice. Financially, physically, and emotionally, everyone competing in London, or even in contention to compete in London, gave up a normal life in pursuit of the gold. And who am I to say if that is the right or wrong decision for someone? But I also must ask, who is a young child to say if that is the right or wrong decision? Gabby is 16 now, but she started formal gymnastics training at age six, and in order to be gold medal-worthy in just 10 years, she wasn’t just doing cartwheels at the YMCA twice a week like most girls did in grammar school. She was engaging in physically and emotionally trying work, which was a serious financial burden. Maybe she will look back and decide that it was worth it, but maybe not. At the time, she was in no position to be choosing such an intense life.
Let’s start with something concrete— the physical burden. Coaches, Pinterest boards, and inspirational posters will say that sports are 99 percent mental, but let’s be real. Imagining that double back tuck wasn’t going to make it happen. Intensive training is necessary and takes its toll. Many gymnasts experience reduced growth potential and have chronic joint and bone issues, as well as a delayed onset of puberty. Jeanne Dopbrak, a sports medicine specialist from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that “[a child athlete’s] immature skeleton just isn’t ready to handle the day-to-day stresses that will occur.” Aside from those long-term risks, there is the chance of immediate injury, as an Ohio State University study found gymnastics to be the most dangerous sport for girls.
There are also the emotional risks. When Gabby was only 14 years old, her training forced her to move 3,000 miles from her family and friends, staying with a host family that she had never before met. After a year, she asked her family if she could leave, give up gymnastics, and return home. Clearly, it was a drastic and difficult change, but Gabby’s family encouraged her to stay. Though everyone has free will, at that age, I for one would not be radically defying the advice of all the adults in my life. Gabby sacrificed time with her family, time for herself, and the normalcy of childhood and teen life, all for gymnastics. It was a decision that she agreed to, but was certainly not independently made.
As if those personal setbacks were not enough, Olympic training also comes at a high financial cost. True, this burden goes to the athlete’s family, but think about how much pressure a child faces, knowing that their parents are going into debt to support their sport. In early 2012, Gabby Douglas’s mother filed for bankruptcy, with a reported debt of $80,000. Between travel expenses for competitions, training fees, and equipment, the sport adds up. It is now paying off for Gabby, through major endorsement deals, and she is currently the number one gymnast in the world. What if she had had an off day in London? What if she ended up like all those other athletes who trained just as rigorously and still didn’t get the gold and the sponsors? Money can definitely be a burden for the family and a source of guilt for the athlete.
These required sacrifices are true in almost any sport, and for athletes of all ages. After all, swimmer Dana Torres had a staff that cost around $100,000 a year, according to a New York Times article, and Michael Phelps’s former coach Tim Himes said that elite swim clubs cost range between $1500 and $3000 per year. Gabby’s family is not the only one with financial difficulties. Ryan Lochte’s parents’ home was facing foreclosure before the London Olympics. Maybe the most extreme case is Sarah Robles, the weightlifter who lived on $400 a month while training for London. All sports also have their own emotional challenges and health risks, which every athlete must face and overcome. No one is capable of rationally choosing those sacrifices at the age of 16 or, more realistically, in the pre-teen years when the athlete is put on the Olympic training path.
Legally, individuals under the age of 18 need to go through an emancipation process to become responsible for themselves, financially and otherwise, and research has shown that the parts of the brain controlling reason and impulse develop until around the age of 25.
Should these children who are 10 years away from peak decision-making really be making choices that significantly impact the rest of their lives?
Gabby Douglas’s mother is quoted as telling her daughter in 2011, “You can’t come home after all this. You’ve sacrificed all of this time. You’ve sacrificed your body. You’ve sacrificed everything for this dream.” Maybe in the future, Gabby will still think that the gold medal was worth those sacrifices. But maybe she won’t, and she should not have made them if she was not in a position to know.