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Are you not entertained? Of ancient gladiators and modern gymnasts

We do not have gladiator games anymore. We no longer gather in arenas to cheer at young men sacrificing themselves at the altar of our pleasure. We have no institutions where would-be warriors live together and continuously rehearse choreographed routines.

Many gladiators were not slaves, but offered themselves up voluntarily, and – like the modern Olympic Games about to kick off in Tokyo – the gladiator games of ancient Rome were cash cows. They were organised and advertised, ticketed, and even included door prizes. They made the men who excelled at them rich.

So, why did this popular sport suddenly come to an end? Because humanity realised it was inhumane.  

It began, as social movements do, with rhetoric. A charismatic guy called Tertullian declared that the games constituted murder, and were therefore spiritually and morally harmful. Constantine the Great agreed, saying ‘the bloody spectacles do not please us in civil ease’ (though he continued to attend them). Yet things only really got going when an innocent got murdered: a monk called Telemachus, who dived between two brawling gladiators to stop the slaughter. The indignant crowd stoned the poor bugger to death, and that was it; popular uproar, and the Emperor Honorius formally prohibited the Gladiator Games in 404 CE.

Sixteen centuries later and humanity is having another awakening – this time about gymnasts.

Sure, nobody is throwing them to lions, and they don’t fight to the death, but elite gymnastics does constitute child abuse and witnessing it is spiritually and morally harmful. The spectacle of barely clothed, malnourished, growth-stunted-yet-impossibly-powerful adolescents performing choreographed tricks on broken bones and torn ligaments to rapturous applause is ghastly and we need to wake up to it.  

Like with cheap sausages or factory-farmed eggs, ethical consumers need to know how elite gymnasts are made.

To make an elite gymnast, you take a child of four-to-six years old, and you begin bending and breaking them for four-to-six hours per day. You shout at and ridicule them, punish and humiliate them, and pit them against their little friends. If threats and punishments fail, you shun them, giving them the silent treatment. If they show promise – if they are stoic, fearless, and submissive in the face of real emotional and physical abuse – then you remove them from their families and institutionalise them. This way, you can brutalise them without anyone seeing. This way, their injuries go undocumented, unnoticed. This way, you can starve them without any familial meddling.

Like with making gladiators, making gymnasts is not lean manufacturing. We break dozens of little girls to make one champion. Really, the morally salient difference between gladiators and gymnasts is that the gladiators of ancient Rome were adults and unlike gymnasts, they were at least well-fed and given excellent medical attention.

No: not all gymnasts, not all gymnastics training facilities. But the analogy is not a stretch. In Australia, a recent Human Rights Commission independent review of the sport headed by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins found that emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, medical negligence, negative weight management practices and body shaming are rife within the sport. Indeed, this appalling combination of malnutrition, overtraining, intimidation, isolation, institutionalisation, humiliation and outright abuse is a repeated pattern that has been found in gymnastics training facilities around the world.

Perhaps even more concerning in the report are the accounts of sexual abuse. Again, another global trend; where do you go if you’re a paedophile sniffing about for victims? A captive population of isolated, barely clothed, and submissive little girls who are used to being in pain, used to being touched by adults, and used to keeping their mouths shut, that’s where. The gymnasium is a meat-market for sickos.

None of this is news – the evidence has been surfacing for decades. In Australia, the first enquiry into gymnastics abuses conducted by Hayden Opie is now more than twenty-five years old. Internationally, there have been dozens of enquires and qualitative interviews documenting the horrors, yet Women’s Artistic Gymnastics continues to be the most-watched sport at the Olympic Games. We blithely ignore what is happening inside these institutions. Then, every four years, we tune in and gobble up this socially sanctioned, government funded child abuse.

As spectators, we’re not monsters. It’s difficult to express the appropriate shock and disgust when the sins of gymnastics aren’t nearly so bloody obvious. In the modern era we can rely less on our innate moral sensibilities and more on the science. Here there is no doubt; the kinds of child abuse and toxic stress described in the Human Rights Commission review can negatively affect brain development by changing both the structure and chemical activity of the brain. In gymnasts exposed to chronic stress – four-to-six hours per day will do it – we would expect to see reductions in the size and function of the hippocampus and overactivity in the amygdala, manifesting in both learning and memory deficits as well as lifelong maladaptation to normal levels of stress. In those exposed to psychological maltreatment (shunning, name-calling, bullying etc.) we might see decreased volume in the corpus collosum and cerebellum, which can impact emotional response, higher cognitive abilities, motor behaviour, and executive function. In children who are physically abused – slapped, painfully stretched, or recurrently exerted to exhaustion – we can anticipate a measurably decreased volume in the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain central to emotional and social regulation. On a more molecular level, malnutrition can impair overall brain development by reducing the growth of neurons, axons, and synapses.

Whenever I review this last body of research in particular, I am reminded of when I was an elite gymnast training at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra in the 1990’s. We were encouraged to exercise on an empty stomach and subjected to weekly skin-fold tests. Punishments included forcing children to run fully-clothed in the sauna. When I quit – and finally had enough nourishment to sustain normal development – my stunted body grew so fast that I developed deep and lasting stretch marks all up my back.

The result at the psychological level of this kind of child abuse is pretty much every mental disorder you can name. Gladiators got a death sentence, while gymnasts get a life sentence. Although the scientist in me is glad we now have this wide body of research to draw upon, the ethicist in me winces at the requirement. When the gladiator schools closed down, we had no research into the long-term outcomes, no studies into gladiator neurodevelopment and subsequent adverse mental health. When the gladiator schools closed down, we went from glorification to moral condemnation, from perverse pleasure to abhorrence, all by ourselves.

Now that we know what goes into the making of a gymnast, and the science tells us the likely outcomes, what do we do? Ban the sport outright just as Emperor Honorius did the gladiator games? Some days, my dark days, I think yes. But then I remember the feeling of floating, flying, weightless and free. Backflips and handstands are so much fun. It is pure joy to be competent with your own body the way a master musician is competent with their instrument.

Unlike with the gladiator games, where violence is the very point, there is nothing inherently wrong with gymnastics – with doing it or watching it. There is only something wrong with us.

We must change the way we consume this commodity.

If it takes ten years of elite training to be at the top of your game, then we should not be seeing gymnasts competing at the Olympic Games who are less than twenty-eight years old. If you see an eighteen-year-old on your screen, know that it means she began that punishing life at eight; well before the age at which she could understand the risks, the costs, and decide for herself whether it was all worth it. For healthy neurodevelopment and robust mental health in adulthood, childhood must be all about play and exploration, not the intense specialisation and brutal repetition required for elite sport. No more artificial childish bodies performing glittery tricks. We must demand fully formed bodies flipping and spinning and muscling their way to Olympic glory. I want to know that no children were harmed in the making of my gymnasts. Free-range gymnasts. Non-institutionalised gymnasts. Hormone-free gymnasts. Well-fed gymnasts. I will consume only healthy happy adult gymnasts.

Anything less? Thumbs down.

 

Image: Raphael Goetter

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Sophie Vivian grew up in Canberra, where she was a gymnast and internationally competitive climber, training at the Australian Institute of Sport. Since leaving the world of elite sport, she has completed a PhD in philosophy and an MSc in Neuroscience. She is a mother and an award-winning poet, and writes on social justice issues from her home, acreage in the Blue Mountains, Australia. Her website is sophivivian.com .

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Comments

  1. What I cherish about this article is that it makes the link between cause and effect so explicit. I was particularly struck by the idea that an 18-year-old on the international circuit is already a product of abusive practices. What inches into the frame here, though, is the question of doubt: how do we know what they’ve been through to get to where they are? There are curious anomalies, too. Take the case of Oksana Chusovitina. This Uzbekistan, then German, then Uzbeski-rep mother is now 46 years old and still competes gymnastics at Olympic level. As a product of Soviet training, how does she view the past practices, and why is she still in the sport? Is she victim or master of her domain? Is there a cross-over point, a journey that encompasses victim through survivor to enlightened adult athlete? As an academic new to the field of gymnastics integrity, I am struck by this article and the questions it raises. It asks brave questions that require brave responses.

  2. The insatiable ambitions of parents, teachers and trainers casts a long, dark shadow over these exploited children.They have a LOT to answer for.
    Ambition is a sign of spiritual emptiness and a psychological hunger that is never sated.

  3. We need to change our focus in sports, from being the best, to having a really fun time. Gymnastics was my first love. The feel of the beam beneath my feet, flying on the bars, the sense of achievement when I finally mastered a move were my bliss. I trained 9 hours a week, which isn’t enough when you love something and want more. Thank goodness I wasn’t that good, so had no chance of being instititionalised at AIS. I’m glad for the experience. I try to encourage my kids to be mediocre. That way you can love something without taking it to a ridiculous extreme. You do not have to be an olympian to fly.

  4. Very interesting about the damage done to the young organism not allowed to grow and mature in a supportive environment. We are learning so much about the nuerological effects of these practices. Sport is such a beautiful activity but glad that I was never exceptional so was able to enjoy my mediocrity. I was married to a sportsman and the winning at all costs model is extremely damaging.

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