The world gymnastics championships are on this week in Melbourne. I did gymnastics all through high school, and I have really mixed feelings about the sport.
I was OK at it, not elite, but moderately serious (six hours of training a week), and for me it was a great sport. The training wasn’t that serious, and was with a group of girls that I got on with really well. There’s a lot of sitting around waiting for your turn when your doing gymnastics training, so it’s quite fun. Although we did talk about our weight from time to time, no more than any other group of teenage girls I was in at the time. And I was tall in gymnastics (I’m 162 cm), which is an experience I always enjoy, as it happens so rarely.
But I’ve also read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, which is a pretty damning indictment of the sport at the elite level. I judged national championships in Australia for a while, and got to see some of the anorexia promoting behavior, and the clear way in which major changes were made to body chemistry in the name of sport. I saw many 18, 19 even 20 something year old retirees from the sport suddenly go through puberty. As a judge, I saw many elite gymnasts judged on their body type, not their performance – even a muscular body type could be implicitly punished as not giving a clear line in the dance elements.
To some extent, most elite sports involve a degree of self sacrifice that seems ridiculous to someone who isn’t as driven as the participants. Most elite women’s sports have terrible records with eating disorders compared with the general population. But the difference with gymnastics is that it takes place so young.
I don’t have daughters (and I won’t), but if I did, I wouldn’t let them start gymnastics if I thought they were in danger of being any good at it.