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Gymnastics: A Sport that Prevents Girls from Growing into Women

Gymnastics and Health

Gymnastics has not always been dominated by adolescent competitors.  In the beginnings of Olympic individual women’s gymnastics, Larisa Latynina, the most decorated female Olympian ever, winning 14 individual medals and 4 team medals, won several medals while four months pregnant.  Her chief rival, Agnes Keleti, was in her early 30s.  In 1972, 17 year old Olga Korbut won three gold medals at the Munich Olympics changing the face of gymnastics.  She raised the profile of women’s gymnastics for her daring and particularly her youth.  Young 13-15 year old gymnasts became the standard.

Athletes who compete in sports that emphasize leanness for performance and appearance, including long distance runners, divers and figure skaters, are at a greater risk for developing eating disorders compared to non weight-restricting sports like volleyball or football.  With the subjectivity of judges, the physical limitations on weight, and the fact that female athletes are more likely to develop disordered eating, women’s gymnastics is practically “designed for the disease.”  A 1992 NCAA survey of college athletes found that 93% of programs reporting eating disorders were in women’s sports.  In the same survey, 51% of the gymnastics programs reported this problem among its team members.  Rapid weight loss has large negative effects on performance and the overall health of the gymnast including fatigue, malnutrition, estrogen deficiency caused by irregular menstruation, bone loss, osteoporosis and death.

Normally, high weight results in poor athletic performance.  However, it is not the actual weight that limits the athlete but the percent of body fat.  A lean athlete, not just a skinny athlete, will perform better.  There is no correlation between body weight and the skills necessary for an elite gymnast—running speed, jumping height and hand strength.  Weight loss up to a certain point enhances performance, but if the body mass index becomes too low the gymnast loses lean tissue and body fluid instead of fat.  She eventually becomes too weak to perform with the same strength and endurance.  Increasing muscle instead of decreasing body fat is more important.  Thin athletes tend to perform better, but the athletes who perform the best are neither the thinnest nor the heaviest.

Many girls begin in gymnastics as toddlers, engaging in targeted training before they even know if their adult body type is best suited for the sport.  Thus, young gymnasts may counter the natural physical effects of puberty through excessive measures.  Lack of proper nutrition and excessive exercise delays the onset and disrupts the onset of menstruation and puberty.  The average female gymnast gets her first period at age 15 ½ compared to the average girl at age 13.  The lack of estrogen affects bone development and leads to future problems like osteoporosis.  They might maintain a thin, girlish figure and avoid developing hips and breasts that get in the way of their performance, but they’re starving themselves.

The drive for thinness and body satisfaction is also caused by the subjectivity of the judging system and pressure from authoritarian coaches.  A runner’s achievement is based completely on speed and endurance, being lean doesn’t necessarily make the difference between 1st and 2nd place.  In gymnastics, it does.  Judges give a score according to their own beliefs and the appearance of the performer does influence the judge’s perceptions of the gymnastics routine.  A US judge, at a meet in Budapest in the late 1980’s, told Christy Henrich that she needed to lose weight in order to make the Olympic team.  This top competitor came to believe that she was fat and losing weight was the only way to achieve her dreams.  Coaches also instruct girls in how to count calories, how to act, what to wear, and what to say in public (“Dying to Win”).  Anorexic and bulimic behaviors become a way to have control.  Young and impressionable gymnasts take their coach’s recommendation to lose weight very seriously.

In the same way that dance companies needed to invest in nutritionists and therapists, the USA Gymnastics Athlete Wellness Program will provide a national referral network of specialists in athletic training, nutrition, psychology and medicine.  The US Gymnastics Federation has a hot line for young athletes who are feeling pressured by their coaches, parents and teammates to lose weight unnecessarily.  There are also programs training coaches in detecting and preventing eating disorders.  Recently, the age eligibility has been raised to 16 which hopefully will result in a more realistic body ideal for gymnasts.  Hopefully, gymnastics will again be a sport of athletic young women and men instead of a playground of little girls.

The National Eating Disorders Association provides many resources for athletes and eating disorders.

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Author: Melanie Carbine

Melanie Carbine currently writes for several education blogs, vlogs about her travels, and teaches middle school in the DC Metro Area.

One Comment

  1. jb

    July 24, 2016 at 6:21 am

    Hmm. You’d just recently read Joan Ryan’s “Little Girls in Pretty Bpxes” when you wrote this, right? You are twenty years behind in most of your observations. Ryan’s book contained a lot of true, insightful information, but it was written twenty years ago. 13-15 year-old gymnasts became the standard thirty years ago with Nadia Comaneci; it’s been a good twenty years since the minimum age for competing in national and international competition was raised to sixteen. And after Henrich’s death, USAG has mandated health and nutrition education for all coaches gymnasts, and eating disorders (though they certainly still occur, as they do in many women’s sports) have been dramatically reduced. It’s an incredibly demanding sport, and the high level of training required can naturally cause a delay in menarche in some cases. Most gymnasts never make it to the elite level and the Olympics, but a vastly greater number of them do go on to compete in NCAA, many getting full-ride scholarships at top schools. NCAA imposes limits on training time that are about half what elites and serious hopefuls train (college gymnasts are students first, after all), and if a gymnast previously had any biological delay, it will end freshman year. As for the age issue, off the top of my head I can name half a dozen gymnasts who will be competing for gold in Rio who are age 25 or older: Catalina Ponor, Jade Barbosa, Daniela Hippolyto, Jessica Lopez, Giulia Steingruber, Ksenia Afanasyeva, Oksana Chusovitina. Every one of these are real medal contenders, and are all ten or more years older than the age of fifteen you declare as the “standard.” And the USA team sometimes leans in that direction: the 2004 US Olympic team had two gymnasts who were 26.In 20126, Chusovitina is forty-one(!), competing in her record SEVENTH Olympic Games, and she will be battling for gold on vault. While it is a reality that gymnastics as a sport favors the young physique in many ways, the persistent perception of the sport as dominated only by teenagers is obsolete. To describe gymnastics that way is about as outdated as believing Central Park is terribly dangerous after dark, and Times Square is teeming with porn theaters and prostitutes. All of these are rooted in images that may have been true once, but have been out of date for about twenty years.

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