Is gymnastics glory worth this price?

MIKE LITTWIN

June 12, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

It's your daughter. And your call.

She is a tiny thing, who, given a set of uneven parallel bars, takes flight. And dance? My God. She's 10 and she dances and prances and tumbles and looks, to your eyes, just like the kids you see on TV up on the platform with the medal hanging from their necks, except maybe even better.

And now there's someone at the door who says he can make your daughter a star, an Olympian, a Mary Lou Retton.

All you have to do is this:

* Send her to Houston for, say, the next five years. Maybe the family can come with her. Maybe you'll have to break up the family. Mom comes to Houston. Dad stays home with the other kids -- the normal, go-to-Little-League, eat-pizza, beg-you-to-see-Encino-Man kids.

* Once she gets to Houston, you cede complete control to the Romanian-born coach. The coach insists on 46 hours of practice a week. Let's make sure that's clear -- 46 hours a week. Of course, there are days off. Sundays are off. July 4 is off. Three days at Christmas are off. That's it.

* You have to understand this is not for fun. That's a direct quote from the coach: "This is not for fun." The coach also says: "This is survival of the fittest." He will yell at your little girl. He will belittle her. If she gains weight, he'll call her a "pregnant goat." Yes, he will. Imagine giving up your pre-teen to Bob Knight, with an attitude. He will push her to an endurance you never dreamed she had -- and he may push her beyond. She may break. It happens all the time to 10-year-olds who aren't quite fit enough.

* There are no guarantees. There are 500 girls in the gym. Only the top six have a shot at the Olympics, and, even among those, there will be dropouts, injuries, failures and, in some cases, psychological therapy to repair the damage.

There's the deal. Do you want it?

If you read Bill Glauber's terrifying piece in The Sun yesterday on the methods used by Bela Karolyi, the pre-eminent gymnastics coach who gave the world Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, you know that some parents strike this Faustian bargain.

Would you?

Could you possibly?

How sure of success would you have to be in order to sacrifice your youngster's childhood in search of glory?

Would you do it even if you knew a gold medal was the certain result?

The thing is, I don't blame Karolyi. I don't like him. I don't like his methods. But I don't blame him.

I blame the parents.

They're probably not evil people, these parents you'll see here this weekend rooting on their little darlings. Like most of us, they want only good things for their children. But they've been seduced. And, worse, they've been accomplices in the seduction of their kids.

I saw Kim Zmeskal, the favorite to win the gold all-around in Barcelona this summer, say she had been dreaming of the Olympics for 10 years. Yes, 10 years. She's 16 now. How do you begin to dream of the Olympics when you're 6 unless someone has whispered it into your ear?

You can say that encouraging, or even allowing, the children to chase this Olympic dream is no different from encouraging any other prodigy -- a dancer, a pianist, a tennis player. And you're right. It's not much different, if you take away the increased possibility of injury, the forestalling of puberty and the trauma inflicted on still growing bodies.

But I have never understood parents who allow their 14-year-olds to join the pro tennis tour, either. Would you want your son or daughter to become a great pianist if it meant the loss of a childhood?

Susan Stokes, whose daughter, Erica, came to Karolyi at age 10 and who quit five years later as a bulimic, blasted Karolyi in The Sun, saying: "I blame the gym, I blame the sport, I blame the United States Gymnastics Federation for what happened."

They're all to blame. But, first, she should blame herself.

Stokes saw the line being crossed between sport and child abuse and, in her own words, was afraid to speak up because she feared it might cost her daughter a chance at the Olympics.

What price glory?

In America, we used to scoff at the East Germans and other East Bloc nations for their methods in producing Olympic champions. We said that wasn't the American way. We said we valued people over prizes. We insisted we were different.

Did we mean it? Maybe not. Because there's a little piece of the late, lamented East Germany kept alive in Bela Karolyi's gym in Houston and in like gyms around the country.

When I watch these wonderfully gifted youngsters this weekend, I can't help remembering where they came from. And feeling sorry.

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