Is the US Olympic System as Abusive as China's?

The spectacle of the 2012 London Olympics should be subtitled “The Bashing of the Chinese Athlete.” Yesterday, Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times published a much-discussed piece called “Heavy Burden on Athletes Takes Joy Away From China’s Olympic Success.” In it, all kinds of “concerns” are raised about the toll “the nation’s draconian sports system” is taking on the country’s athletes. It tells tales of poverty, loneliness and despair amongst China’s sports stars once the cheering has stopped. Their athletes are described as being exploited by an unfeeling government monolith that acted as a surrogate family until they were no longer of any use. Parents of China’s Olympians are quoted saying, “We accepted a long time ago that she doesn’t belong to us. I don’t even dare think about things like enjoying family happiness.” Other parents tell of not being able to recognize their own children after years apart.

The other dominant story about China are the continuing unfounded allegations that 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen took performance-enhancing drugs to win gold. Executive Director of the American Swim Coaches Association John Leonard called Shiwen’s world-record 400-meter individual medley swim “disturbing.” He is also continuing to describe her closing freestyle leg of 58.68 seconds as “impossible.”

There have been a series of ugly articles about Shiwen, none uglier perhaps than a piece by UK’s Daily Mail’s David Jones titled “Forging of the Mandarin Mermaid: How Chinese children are taken away from their home and brutalized into future Olympians.” Not “trained” but “brutalized.”

Then there was Bob Costas’s handling of the issue on NBC, which involved the raising of an unfounded accusation on the basis of it’s being news and then using it to advance the allegation. I’m surprised Costas didn’t turn to special guest Michelle Bachmann to speak about rumors of Shiwen’s time in the Muslim Brotherhood. There is zero evidence but Shiwen is guilty in the Western media with no avenue to prove her innocence.

None of this is to defend China’s state-run system of producing athletes. But it seems rather painfully obvious why we are seeing this tidal wave of suspicion, drug allegations and concern for the “children.” China is the chief economic rival in the world to the United States. Just like during the cold war, the Olympics have become a proxy war where “medal counts” connote more than bragging rights but are a comment on the health of a nation. China is rivaling the United States in medal counts so its dominance has to be explained in as critical, ugly and even as racist a way as possible. The message is that the Chinese have medals because they just don’t love their kids.

If the New York Times is that concerned about the brutalization of young athletes, that battle begins at home. US athletes don’t have to navigate a state-run athletic system but something perhaps far more pernicious. Unlike China, US athletes get no government subsidies whatsoever. Their number one obstacle to the medal stand isn’t ability but poverty. As one study by the USA Track and Field Foundation demonstrated, “Approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.).”

Both systems create “collateral damage.” Both systems are in need of reform. The only difference is the narrative. When we hear that swimmer Ryan Lochte’s parents are facing foreclosure on their home, or that track star Lolo Jones’s family was homeless, or that gymnast Gabby Douglas was sent from her mother in Virginia Beach to live with strangers at the age of 14, those are tales of heroism and sacrifice. We celebrate their pain instead of condemning it or even being disturbed by it.

The US system also contains its share of countless broken bodies and broken lives, discarded in pursuit of gold. The ongoing sexual abuse scandal in USA Swimming is an example of this.As ESPN’s T.J. Quinn and Greg Amante wrote in 2010, “Youth swimming coaches, many certified by USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, have been able to molest young swimmers and then move from town to town, escaping criminal charges and continuing to victimize other under-aged swimmer…. ESPN found the abusive coaches, some of whom molested young swimmers for more than 30 years, avoided detection because of a number of factors: USA Swimming and other organizations had inadequate oversight, many local coaches, parents and swimming officials failed to report inappropriate contact they witnessed, and some parents, driven to see their children succeed, ignored or did not recognize what should have been red flags.” [My emphasis.]

Then there is USA Gymnastics. Joan Ryan, in her brilliant 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, wrote the following about our system for producing gold medal gymnasts: “What I found was a story about legal, even celebrated child abuse. In the dark troughs along the road to the Olympics lay the bodies of girls who stumbled on the way, broken by the work, pressure and humiliation. I found a girl whose father left the family when she quit gymnastics at the age of 13, who scraped her arms and legs with razors to dull her emotional pain and who needed a two-hour pass from a psychiatric hospital to attend her high-school graduation. Girls who broke their necks and backs. One who so desperately sought the perfect, weightless gymnastic body that she starved herself to death.”

Imagine for a moment if Bob Costas or the New York Times had stories like this to tell about China. If they did, we’d know them by heart. Instead, the pain of US athletes remains in the shadows. The message to all US critics of China’s Olympic system should be, “Physician, heal thyself.” The battle to make Olympic training more humane begins at home.

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Then There's Sarah Robles

Female weightlifter Robles had to resort to food stamps to survive. Had she won even a bronze medal, she'd have been $10,000 richer (before taxes). But she finished out of the top three.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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