Gymnastics and skating: closer to art than to sports Controversy: The books that argue for 'female jocks' miss the essence of both endeavors.


June 09, 1996|By Anita Finkel | Anita Finkel,special to the sun

One of the big differences between sport and art is that no one expects art to be fair. Few ostensibly sporting endeavors may be less fair than figure skating and gymnastics, sports that resemble ballet and, like ballet, make stars of idealized young women. As the new Olympic season dawns, debate stirs again around these girls - so young, so small, so thin, facing such odds. Should American girls be encouraged, or even allowed, to embrace the discipline and accept the standards it takes to win?

The connoisseur's answer must be yes; the complaints of would-be reformers actually belittle these girls' accomplishments and potentially derail the development of their art forms.

Two of the most readable books in the stores this summer are concerned about the girls who participate in high-level skating and gymnastics. They are Christine Brennan's "Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating" (Scribner. 319 pages. $23) and Joan Ryan's "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters" (Warner Books. 243 pages. $13).

Both authors are sportswriters, Ms. Brennan for the Washington Post, Ms. Ryan for the San Francisco Chronicle. They are dedicated (each followed her sport exclusively for a year) and knowledgeable; Ms. Ryan is an encyclopedia of gymnastics moves, Ms. Brennan gives a virtual seminar on judging. But as sportswriters their perspective is limited.

The evolution of skating into an expressive art, incorporating the heritage of ballet, quite eludes Ms. Brennan, who accepts Brian Boitano as an artist and labels Scott Hamilton an athlete. (Memo to CB: they're the same skater.) Ms. Ryan doesn't acknowledge the artistic qualities of elite gymnasts.

Concern about the problem of puberty and possible anorexia gives ballast to "Inside Edge," which is otherwise lighter than air - the gossip is delicious, but it's last year's.

Once "who's-Katarina-sleeping-with-and-how-does-Paul-Wylie- feel- about-it" is dispensed with, one more solid subject is female competitors' efforts to discipline the changes that come with physical maturation. The ones who don't, or can't, wash out, just like the girls who can't do triple jumps.

The stories of girls destroyed by weight gain appear throughout; fear is that as harder jumps demand lighter bodies, "the sport might become a world of disposable fourteen- year-olds" who "disappear with the onset of breasts, hips, and thighs." Judging from the continued success of Michelle Kwan, the 16-year-old world and Olympic champion, skaters with suitable bodies will weather the change quite well, just as young ballet dancers do.

Not a single frivolous moment lightens "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes." Joan Ryan is entirely consumed with the problems of the girls and adolescents, aged about 12 and up, who have come to dominate elite, Olympic-level gymnastics, superseding the plusher college students of pre-Olga, pre-Nadia decades.

Gymnastics is a world of "legal, even celebrated child abuse ... In the dark troughs along the road to the Olympics lay the bodies of the girls who stumbled along the way, broken by the work, pressure, and humiliation."

It is a Stygian milieu, where youngsters force themselves to train through frequent injury and, at the insistence of coaches, virtually starve themselves to delay physical maturation. Things are so bleak that even if a girl wins a medal, she's too dispirited to enjoy, or even feel, the experience.

None of this would be an issue if the "little girls" were not winning; if they were not, in fact, capable of mastering the challenges and achieving a level far beyond previous generations. "Ten years ago," Ms. Ryan writes, "routines on the uneven bars included just one release ... Today gymnasts perform two or three releases in a single routine."

In 1972, Olga Korbut's single backflip on the balance beam was "revolutionary"; today, a sequence of three is standard. Even if it's thrilling, Ms. Ryan says, it should be stopped; gymnastics and the public should renounce the virtuosity achieved by young, lean bodies working very hard. Not everyone who tries, after all, can do it, and some are crushed by failure.

"Little Girls" recounts two genuinely heart-breaking cases. One is that of Julissa Gomez, who was 15 when she experienced a Christopher Reeve-like injury in an attempted vault, suffered brain damage and died. Her coach was probably indifferent to the difficulties she was having and possibly exploiting her. Another gymnast, Christy Henrich, died of anorexia. One feels for both girls' families and their wasted lives.

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