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Rooting For the Chinese

Like any red-corpuscled American I root for the red, white and blue, and scream "USA! USA! USA!" at the TV while pounding tall Buds on my journey to the far marchlands of inebriation. But last night I found myself rooting for the Chinese women gymnasts to edge the Americans. I was worried that something terrible would happen to the Chinese women if they lost.

Gymnastics in general seems vaguely totalitarian: One tiny slip, missed step, wobble and you are hit with the dreaded deduction. Worse is if you fall outright, and land on your keister with all the world watching. The judging is unforgiving. Doing something outstanding, or breathtaking, is encouraged, but most of all you are not supposed to mess up.

It doesn't look like any fun at all out there.

The faces of the gymnasts are plastered with tension before a routine. When they do well, and survive, the look of relief is explosive. It's great TV, but not exactly a relaxing way to prepare for bed late at night. [In fact I gave up eventually and taped the rest to watch today -- but here are the results in case you're wondering.]

As much as I wanted the Americans to do well (don't fall!!!), I kept obsessing over what would happen to the Chinese gymnasts if they let their country down. China is rather image conscious [thanks Mudge for the link]. They've been training since they were three years old. We're told by NBC that they were taken from homes at at that age and were allowed to see their parents only once a year. An announcer for NBC said one of the gymnasts, now 20, asked her parents if she could come home, but was told no, she had to stick with the program.

At what point does this become something like a human rights violation?


Bonus Olympics notion: I'm not sure what legendary coach Bela Karolyi is adding to the NBC broadcast in terms of gymnastics analysis -- often he seems to be saying that the important thing is to NOT FALL (though you have to listen carefully to catch what he's saying through that Hungarian goulash of an accent) -- but he is one of the more vivid, ready-to-be-imitated-on-SNL characters we've seen in a long time. I wonder if NBC has him on air in the studio with Costas because they realize he adds a certain campiness to the event (paging Susan Sontag ... ).

Meanwhile, great column as always by Chris Brennan -- read to the end.

She also explains the physics of gymnastics:

"It's possible some of the confusion over the gymnasts' ages has occurred because of the Chinese tradition, still in practice in the southern part of the nation in particular, that children are considered age 1 at birth. It's more likely that the Chinese know their physics: The tinier the body, the better it spins and twists and flies through the air. Just like in figure skating, puberty is the enemy.

"Nowhere was that more evident than on the uneven bars today. The three underage Chinese dominated the Americans on that event, moving from a half-point deficit to more than a one-point advantage. Ah, the benefits of youth."

By Joel Achenbach  |  August 13, 2008; 8:03 AM ET
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Thanks Joel. That's what I've been saying!

Oh, and first?

Posted by: Yoki | August 13, 2008 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Jeez, boss, you're a kit-creating machine this week!

On kit, I thought this was an interesting story this morning, from the Times of London:

Posted by: slyness | August 13, 2008 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Joel asks, "At what point does this become something like a human rights violation?"

Er, can someone point me to a list of Internationally Recognized Human Rights that China subscribes to with regards to its citizenry and who they'd be willing to submit to the jurisdiction of?

[Apologies for the fuzzy thinking and lousy sentence construction.]

[And I'm snorting at the thought of the Bush Administration's reaction to being asked to approve or ratify *any* legislation regarding Human Rights of anyone anywhere. I wonder if they'd resign the U.S. Constitution were it presented to them today (my guess: No Way, Jose.)?]


Posted by: bc | August 13, 2008 8:59 AM | Report abuse

That's a great link, slyness.

Call me old fashioned, or old thinking, or whatever Joel, but I'm wondering if these Chinese girls aren't better off staying with the program...that is to say, better nutrition, education, comraderie of other female athletes. If American athletes don't perform as well as they would like, they know family/home is there for them. What do these tiny Chinese gymnists face in the homeland if they fail? Are their families as supportive, both emotionally and financially as ours are in the USA?

Posted by: Vintagelady | August 13, 2008 8:59 AM | Report abuse

The female gymnastics was way past my bedtime, but I kept thinking the same thing when I was watching synchronized diving. The Chinese pair was flawless. (In fact, I strongly suspect that the second diver was, in fact, a hologram.) And I kept darkly wondering what would happen to their families should they fail.

But I don't think that's the Chinese way. I don't think they rely on fear as much as cultural intimidation.

I recently read a book by Jennifer 8. Lee about Chinese restaurants in America. The book describes the complex relationship between parents and children in traditional Chinese families. The parents are supposed to sacrifice everything to create opportunities for the children, and the children are supposed to sacrifice everything to take advantage of these opportunities to benefit the family as a whole.

This suggests, to me, that the Chinese training system is just a enhanced version of the traditional Chinese value system. That is, it isn't fear that keeps them motivated, but shame. The shame they feel, and are forced to observe in their families and society, I suspect, contributes to a crushing sense of cultural responsibility that is, in some ways, even more coercive than a bullet.

Given all this I guess I am surprised that the Chinese are not even more dominant. When I see them fall I wince at the shame they must endure, but I also view it as a kind of reaffirmation that the human element cannot be removed.

Posted by: RD Padouk | August 13, 2008 9:07 AM | Report abuse

SCC: second "bc."

Bah, I'm a keyboard klutz.


Posted by: bc | August 13, 2008 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Well, after having done my own triple somersault with a coupla twists onto my stone tile kitchen floor the other night, lemme tell ya that gymnastics (deliberately played or not) ain't the kindest thing one can do to one's body. I didn't ache much yesterday, but today there are complaints from various muscle groups. The hot shower this morning helped, but I'm sure not as young as I usta be (I wonder if I ever was).

Yeah, the manipulation of children to bring glory and status and, well, let's face it, $$$, to the adults is abuse in my book. And it's not going to change.

The corporate "sponsorships" of athletes in this country I find to be unfortunate, but where are the athletes going to find the money to train and to travel? And what is the quid pro quo? There may also be, among individual athletes, a hard swallow in taking the sponsorship money, if the corporation produces products or produces them in a way (inside the company and/or out) which might compromise the athlete's own integrity values. Do you swallow hard and take the money and run or swim or hurl yourself around on a mat, or do you give up what you consider to be your life's dream for the sake of your own conscience? I think we are seeing the answer to that -- every night for two some odd weeks, watching performances for brief seconds before becoming barraged by advertisements by, gee whiz already, the corporate sponsors.

And there we have it. News at 11.

Posted by: firsttimeblogger | August 13, 2008 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Well, yes, everything you guys are saying about the Chinese and their methods might be true ...but is it new? No; they've been this way ever since Mao -- and he built upon a cultural heritage a couple thousand years old. It's their culture; it always has been. To suddenly recognize this is how they are suggest to me that people just haven't been paying attention.

And there seems to be some memory loss going on. For a couple decades us older farts watched teams coming out of Russian, Romania and especially the East germans that were every bit as monolithic and dehumanized as the Chinese (maybe more so, because of our expectation that coming out of the Western culture and Europe, that they were supposed to be "like us"). But they, too, basically talent-spotted toddlers, took them away from families, and raised them from tykes to be champion gymnasts and swimmers, etc. They, too, built sports "machines" and dynasties. So where is the "new" in this "news"?

The fabulous Ludmilla Tourischeva, whom I watched for 12 years running, was talented and very pretty -- and had the soul and personality of the Terminator. Not a fun date at the malt shop, methinks.

And who are America's top gymnastics coaches? The husband-and-wife Karolyis, who built Nadia Comenci. Surely there is some irony here?

I'm not saying there's anything good about the Russian, Romanian or Chinese sports machines. I'm just saying it ain't nothing new.

Harold Meyerson has a piece this morning about how Russia's invasion of Georgia and the Chinese Olympics mark the emergence of two new world superpowers, and that American dominance of the world is over. Hello, Harold? Where the *&^%$ have you been for the last 60 years? You *do* remember the Cold War, don't you, Harold? It was in all the papers. That was back when the USSR rose to become a world power-- not last week when they invaded Translatunia. Do you remember Mao Chou En-Lai and the 1960s, when they emerged onto the international stage?

Man, I guess what they say about smoking dope killing your short-term memory is true. China and Russia (and India) aren't newly emergent superpowers. They "newly emerged" when I was in elementary school. And you know how long ago that was.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | August 13, 2008 9:36 AM | Report abuse

First time Costas and Karolyi were on-air together, Costas' mic wasn't working properly, so he had to hold the small device in front of his face. Someone at NBC completely forgot to put a mic on Karolyi--or anywhere near him, so Karolyi's colorful commentary was flying into the Chinese atmospheric soup. So the glitches aren't all made by athletes.

Strange watching some of the Olympic coverage from the radiology lab waiting area. I saw an exterior crowd shot and thought it was really raining hard in Beijing. Then the heavy rain was coming down on the beach volleyball players, but I couldn't see any mist or precip on the men's sunglasses. Then the same sideways rain was falling on the swimmers INSIDE the Cube.

Then I realized the TV all of us in the waiting area were watching was really screwed up. In the sub-basement area of the building where many very seriously ill people, many of them cancer patients, have to spend time, you'd think San Antonio's Methodist Hospital could afford a decent television set? (The second waiting are for family, where I spent time, was not only filthy and grimey--but grim, with walls wallpapered in gray! Don't even get me started on the two meals, lunch and dinner, of hospital food that I ate.)

Loomispouse was being really jacka$$y yesterday. Thank goodness there's Olympic coverage to keep him entertained for hours. He thought he'd be back at work today and in the gym by Friday. NOT. NOT.

Posted by: Loomis | August 13, 2008 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Yes...but how did his tests go, Loomis? When do you get the lymph node report back?

It's a guy thing, thinking you'll be back in the office right away. Been there, done that.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | August 13, 2008 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I think Karolyi is much harder to understand today than he was 15 years ago. My theory is that as he has gained conceptual fluency with English he is speaking faster and faster, which reduces his overall intelligibility. Sort of like how you are a better driver when you are still nervous about doing it.

And such a hoary sports cliche to state that the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win.

I did appreciate the not-so-subtle dig Karolyi made about the relative youth of the Chinese gymnasts. He is on record of opposing all age limits as being impossible to enforce. And although I don't necessarily support that, I see his point.

Of course, from what I have read today, the American women partly did themselves in through their own errors. While this doesn't threaten their personal safety, it does reduce the chance that Wheaties will come a calling.

Posted by: RD Padouk | August 13, 2008 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Padouk, Karolyi said that "half the Chinese team" were underage. I don't sense any widespread disagreement about that. But he didn't seem too disturbed about it, and said nothing can be done about it.

I read somewhere that five of them weighed less than 80 pounds each.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | August 13, 2008 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I hate Ragweed
Ragweed loves me
Ragweed's lovely
No it snot


Posted by: omni | August 13, 2008 10:11 AM | Report abuse

There's a lot of stuff on the front page today about China and most of it is hard to see as flattering.
I wonder if, when the Chinese government "selects" a child for training, the parents have any say? Without reprisal, that is. Is it an honor to have your child raised by the state?
Don't know...
I know this if off-topic, but I got this link in an email today - and while everyone in the video clips seem to be having a fun time, what they're doing is terrifying.
Check this out: microwaving popcorn with cell phones!

I'm sure it's all in good fun.

Posted by: Dmon | August 13, 2008 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Morning all... quoting from Sports Illustrated online here...

//The Americans were six for six in hitting their routines, and the pressure fell squarely on the backs of the young Chinese.

And we do mean young. Their passports are issued by a Chinese government that is very, very interested in winning lots and lots of gold medals, so while they may say they're 15 or 16, five of the six team members have the appearance of pre-pubescent children.

"The little babies," is how U.S. coach Martha Karolyi refers to the Chinese gymnasts when speaking to her team, and they certainly are little. Li Shanshan (16) is 4-foot-9, 79 pounds. Yang Yilin (15) is 4-foot-11, 77 pounds. He Kexin (16) is 4-foot-8, 73 pounds. Jiang Yuyuan (16) is 4-foot-7, 71 pounds. But the prize goes to Deng Linlin (16), who's listed at 4-foot-6 and a strapping 68 pounds. She could take a nap in Yao Ming's sneaker. Poor thing's also missing a tooth. Please, someone send baby food.//

Posted by: TBG | August 13, 2008 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Dmon... haven't you learned by now that nothing is off topic for the Boodle?

Glad to see you still around, too.


Posted by: TBG | August 13, 2008 10:16 AM | Report abuse

When I saw the kit title I thought it would be amusing to wonder aloud if Chinese rooting involved ginseng and ginger but thought, after the Spanish basketball team fiasco, it might be a tad culturally insensitive. The Hungarian goulash references reassued me that it would be ok just as I realized it wasn't really, well and truly, funny :-)

The trouble with juvenile atheletes is that we can't know whether they really want to be there or are succumbing to parental, coach, or peer pressure. Sans state pressure like in China I'm fairly confident that an adult is competing freely. This is kinda, sorta an informed consent issue.

The USSR was a global super-power. Russia, like China and India are regional powers. There's only one global super-power and it's you.

Caving in to irrestistable sister pressure I called the appraisal firm that hadn't responded to the questionaire I sent them and was told they didn't like my printing. I resisted the impulse to invite them to fornicate elsewhere.

It's raining here again (Surprise!) but on the bright side I saw some shooting stars last night.

Posted by: Boko999 | August 13, 2008 10:20 AM | Report abuse

I think that Costas' interview with President Bush will be tough to top on the campiness scale.

Like an episode from the TV version of "Batman."

Having Karolyi in the studio with Costas is amusing, too. Sorta the Hungarian John Madden - I imagine that Frank Caliendo's working on dead-ringer imitation as we speak.

In fact, it'd be great to have Madden do some color commentary on some of the Olympic sports, maybe Men's Synchronized Swilling (oops, thinking about the pool water discussion), er, Swimming? [He'd have to do his bit from New York or LA since the Maddencruiser won't float across the Pacific, turducken or not]

And, of course, have Bela Karolyi in the booth with Al Michaels for a quarter of Sunday Night Football.

Caliendo, feel free to send the money here.


Posted by: bc | August 13, 2008 10:21 AM | Report abuse

I've been thinking about the whole recruitment of Chinese gymnasts at the age of three thing. I mean what are the criteria? Potty trained? Only look like you're 9 months old so you'll look really young when you're 16? Pulling-up at a really early age? Falling off the handle-bars of dad's bike and not splitting your head open? What?
And how does the recruitment process work? Are there squads of Chinese officials roaming the country side spying on babies? Do mom and/or dad turn in their kid for being able to walk well at the age of one? If you pi$$ off your boss, does he call the Gym Squad and have your kid hauled-off?
I mean, how does that work?
When any of my kids were three, the only time they drew any public attention was when they were going ballistic! Sometimes I think... if only someone WOULD have taken them...
Nah! Just teasing, uhhhh

Posted by: Dmon | August 13, 2008 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Good morning. I too worry about what may happen to the Chinese athletes who are expected to win medals if they don't.

Mudge, of course we're commenting on a long-standing Chinese cultural phenomenon (I like RD's "shame" characterization). I don't think Joel or anyone is suggesting this is somehow new. Also, I'm sure all of us old enough to remember the Eastern bloc recognizes the similarities in training and philosophy. We're talking about it now and specifically in the context of China because it is so very apparent at the Chinese-hosted Games.

I don't think it is a question of sudden realizations or memory loss. This just happens to be a legitimate area of comment at this time for these Games. It may be bringing up and reaffirming old news, but that doesn't mean it isn't an appropriate news topic. In fact, it may resonate more now because there may actually have been some folks out there who believed the Chinese government's promises of substantive change if they got the Games, and who assumed those promises would include these types of fundamental changes. I don't know why they would think that, but I'll bet some people did (your "more like us" category).

Loomis, I'm sorry LoomisSpouse is cranky but I hope all went well and the results are good.

Posted by: Ivansmom | August 13, 2008 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Ah, Mudge I was a Nellie Kim fan myself, Tourisheva had too much of a Mother Superior look for my taste. I'm more of an age with the beautiful and intelligent Nellie as well.

I love Simon Barnes' writing over at The Times. He is blogging the Olympics brilliantly. For example, yesterday he was totally on-kit as he was rooting for China's men team in gymnastics. Today he is commenting on the greatness of Phelps, the disappearance of breasts and the homoeroticity of synchonized diving.
" Just managed to catch another round of the synchrinised (sic) diving. It was the springboard today, and the British pair, Nicholas Robinson-Baker and Benjamin Swain, were doing their stuff. Their achievement was, it must be said, in reaching the final. Theirs is a sport not without beauty, but it always seems to have a homoerotic whiff about it as well. It all looks like a wonderfully elegant gay suicide pact."

I propose his blog as a temporary blogroll candidate for the duration of the Olympics.

Posted by: shrieking denizen | August 13, 2008 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I think the thing that is telling for me in terms of the way they do olympic 'business' in China was the looks on the faces of these little gymnists (I categorically refuse to call it 'woman's gymnastics - the closest thing to a woman was the 20 year old american girl) - the empty stoic face was the same whether or not it was a flawless routine or they fell off the beam.

I'd rather see flaws and real anguish on the face of Alicia Sacramone - mixed with the beaming pride of Shawn Johnson than empty perfection. Sadly I was actually rooting for the Chinese as I started watching last night, imagining that they would feel joy and pride competing in front of their fellow countrymen. I didn't get that at all as I watched the night progress.

Posted by: LTL | August 13, 2008 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Dmon, I really liked that cellphone popcorn video, too (there are actually two of them floating around). Both have been exposed as frauds, alas. Ya can't microwave popcorn with your Blackberry. Which is kinda too bad.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | August 13, 2008 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Gosh darn it, Mudge. There goes my morning snack (I was planning to wander around and borrow someone's Blackberry).

Posted by: Ivansmom | August 13, 2008 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Veering off-topic for a moment, this headline on the front page of made me double-take:

"Mad Cow Rules Hit Sperm Banks"

From Rob Stein's article on

"When Julie Peterson decided to have a baby on her own two years ago, she picked a tall, blond, blue-eyed Danish engineer as a sperm donor to match her own Scandinavian heritage. But when she went back to the sperm bank to use the same donor to have another child, she was stunned to discover that the federal government had made it impossible.

'I just cried,' said Peterson, 43, who lives in North Carolina. 'I was in complete shock. I hadn't thought about anything but having another baby with this donor. It was just so surprising and bewildering.'

The sperm bank had run out of vials from Peterson's donor and could not replace them, because of restrictions health officials have instituted to protect Americans against the human form of mad cow disease. Since May 2005, the United States has effectively barred sperm banks from importing from Europe for fear it might spread the brain-ravaging pathogen that causes the affliction.

Now, as the remaining vials of Nordic semen frozen in U.S. sperm banks are running out, a small but desperate number of would-be parents are frantic. Peterson has flown repeatedly to Denmark, and went again this week, to try to get pregnant with sperm from the same donor. Others are going to Canada or Mexico, or haggling with other American women who have leftover vials."

No word if she's going to a bank in Denmark or directly to the source.

Also wondering when those leftover vials will end up on eBay. And when someone will realize that it's cheaper to buy this guy a plane ticket to the US, where he'll be free to ply his trade as he sees fit.

Love to see a copy of that H-1B status sponsorship form filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, and who'd sign it.

I wonder if anyone's going to file a suit against the FDA on the grounds of fair trade. Is this the Bush Administration exerting protectionism for American, er, genetic material?

More quotes from the article:

"'We have just a few crumbs left,' said Claus Rodgaard, who runs the bank. He said Cryos has more than 100 patients on a waiting list for its most popular donors, who use pseudonyms including 'Dane,' 'Finn' and 'Oluf.'

Because there is no shortage of sperm from American donors, the biggest outcry has come from women seeking more exotic donors or those with a clear genetic lineage, as well as from women, such as Peterson, who want to have another child using the same donor as before.

'I'm Swedish-Norwegian and really wanted to have a gene pool that was similar to my own,' Peterson said. "I wanted a baby that looked like me and wanted to share my heritage with my baby. Now I have a beautiful Viking baby, which is what I wanted. I was hoping to give her a full sibling.'"

Please note that I did not make any jokes or references to pilgrimages to or worship of Odin in the construction of this comment. Thank you.


Posted by: bc | August 13, 2008 10:51 AM | Report abuse

SCC: "No word if she's going to a bank in Denmark or directly to the source."

Peterson *did* go to the bank in Denmark, I neglected to delete the line in my commentary. Apologies.


Posted by: bc | August 13, 2008 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Shriek -- I remember Nellie Kim, too. I always enjoyed watching her, as she had a determined elegance about her.

Watching Shawn Johnson on the balance beam last night (which is hard to do while holding your breath), her performance was truly masterful. And you could tell that she was having the absolute time of her life. She's very real. Nastia Luiken (sp?) is very ethereal-looking. She has a natural, quiet elegance about her. I really felt for Alicia Sacramone, as her anguish was all over her face. The US team is very real, and I thought the Chinese team, cute as they were, didn't have that same snap. I don't mean to belittle them, though, as they did very well, obviously.

But, like the election, I really want this to be over. Although I could watch Michael Phelps swim for absolute ever!

Posted by: firsttimeblogger | August 13, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

A couple of points re. the Chinese female gymnasts.

I assume it helps having a younger body in gymnastics. If as a trainer you can select from a lage pool of talent, maybe you select the ones who are petite. I know from personal experience that at 16 you can still look like you are 12. (it sucks)
The age could easely be tested, by taking an x ray of their wrist and looking at the their growth plates. I wonder if the IOC will do it.

Anpther point: What about the American gymnasts? How old where they when they started? Did they get presured in it?
Most if not all athletes who reach top olymic level experienced hardship, toil and physical pain as kids. Even if they are over 18 when they compete. It takes years of training and dedication to get to that level and thus you start as a kid wherever you come from, be it China, the US or Zwahiristan.

I do agree that the Chinese kids will be pushed even harder then those in the West, but I also believe that thinking they would be made to suffer if they lost is a bit of a stretch of the imagination.
There is a lot of reporting going on about human rights in China, but it's not the China of Mao anymore.

Posted by: ET | August 13, 2008 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I was hoping the cell phone thingie would be my ticket to always having hot coffee at my desk. Now I've gotta go down the hall (again) to nuke it in the kitchen.
Did I say dang?

Posted by: Dmon | August 13, 2008 11:02 AM | Report abuse

If cellphones could produce that kind of microwave power, by now you would have noticed the burns on the side of your head. Also, the direction of maximum power is perpendicular to the dipole antenna -- those cell phones were directed so as to place the popcorn into a lobe of the antenna pattern. The orientation of the antenna is predictable because maximum coupling is between parallel antennas and maximum power in most circumstances is accomplished with the antenna dipole perpendicular to the ground.

Tedious pedantry accomplished!

I couldn't credit impassive facial expression as demonstrating a lack of emotional involvement. Lots of cultures prize stoicism and emotional privacy much more than we do in the U.S., where we tend to deride someone as having no inner life or emotional depth if we aren't able to get a constant reading of emotion from the person's face.

I would like to know why anyone permits the Karolyis to be anywhere near children. I listened to an interview with Martha this morning -- apparently, her idea of a pep talk is to tell her gymnasts that they failed and they better not do so again, or they will lose. Technically correct, yet hardly encouraging toward success. I understand that the Karolyis have been associated with many elite gymnasts, but a lot of that seems to come from elite gymnasts following the preceding generation of elite gymnasts. I bet there is someone else who could be anointed who might not be such a jerk.

Posted by: ScienceTim | August 13, 2008 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Yellojkt, do they feed promising basketball player growth hormones throughout puberty?

The truth is that there is no need for hormonal manipulation in many cases-- heavily training and keeping gymnasts on a higher-protein diet and quite lean is sufficient to delay puberty (and slow maturation of the skeleton.)

I'm actually not in the camp that thinks delayed puberty is a bad thing. In America, there are 8 year old girls getting their menarche. I knew one such girl, she was being hit on by adult men at age 12... in front of her father... because she looked 18 plus. She wound up having 3 kids before age 21, dropped out of college and is gonna be struggling for a while.

The mean age of menarche in !kung women was 16.5, with median 17.2 years old. They were often married at or before menarche. They tended to get pregnant within 1-2 years after first menarche, as well. (They're also fairly small due to IGF mutations, which also may affect maturation).

In 1890 the average age of menarche in Europe was 14.5, and boys' voices were reported by Bach to change at age 17, not 11-13 like nowadays.

I submit that we need to be taking our epidemic early puberty as a result of obesity and overnutrition far more seriously than late puberty in gymnasts; these girls are actually far more "normal" in evolutionary terms.

This study indicates that higher population density tended to accelerate puberty (and smaller body size) in hunter-gatherers because that was correlated with greater childhood mortality.

We don't know the mechanism. My guess is it is stress-related.

Phermones have been known to affect growth. Locusts, for instance, will transform from grasshoppers to large flocking marauder under high population densities. The mechanism has been found-- it's the frequency of touch that triggers the change.

Posted by: Wilbrod | August 13, 2008 11:08 AM | Report abuse

About the tooth, it could of course be that that girl is only 6 to 7 year old and already one of the best gymnasts in the world.

But another explanation might be this one:

Do a handstand on the beam. Slip. Fall face first on said beam. Remove broken tooth.

Posted by: ET | August 13, 2008 11:15 AM | Report abuse

In fairness to China and other countries that encourage elite athletes, do not discount the impact of parents who see dollar signs when they view their childrens involvement in sport. It is one thing to compete for your country it takes it to an entirely different level when competing for people you truly love.

12 and 13 year old athletes can be very determined to accomplish their goals and have a good sense of the sacrafices (although not all) required to reach those goals.

Posted by: dmd | August 13, 2008 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Food for thought: how is anything the Chinese may be doing to the girls any different from what the Ramseys (and other parents in the same mold) did to Jon Benet?

What about parents who push their kids into, say, ballet?

I've run into plenty of overly agressive sports parents in Little League, who push Sally or Bobby far ahead of other kids, sometimes for a monetary goal (a college scholarship, although I'm not sure "money" alone is the only aspect of college schlarship fever; there are prestige elements, too). Pushing a boy into baseball/football/basketball with the ultimate goal of playing professionally and making a zillion bucks has no equivalent in girls' sports; the day after your college softball career ends, you are done, from a dollar point of view. There is no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. Yet it doesn't stop girls or their parents from being as agressive as the boys.

As problematic as any or all of this subject might be, I think we have a helluva lot more wrong in our culture that needs fixing before we devote too much energy to girls gymnastics. The larger culture that we claim we want them to participate in is toxic as all get-out. I'm not sure they aren't better off cloistered in some high-intensity program rather than subjected to what's out there on the street.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | August 13, 2008 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I couldn't agree more. On another note--this morning's NBC gymnastics analists were whining over the American silver, citing the Chinese team's unfair age advantage. Although this seems a moot point now that the alleged under-agers have won, it's pretty sad that we can make excuses like the fact that these girls are younger means that they can't somehow comprehend the ramifications of losing gold like some of our more "seasoned" American gymnasts.

As IF.

Posted by: Hailey | August 13, 2008 11:39 AM | Report abuse

New apocalyptic kit!

Posted by: shrieking denizen | August 13, 2008 11:42 AM | Report abuse

ok - i'll agree they look young but does that change their skill level? even if they are 13 they performed at a level comparative, if not better, than 16 year olds... doesn't that count? not that i wasn't rooting for the americans cuz i was... oh, and sheesh michael phelps!
and mudge was right about russia and other countries taking children at young ages and putting them through extreme training during their youth - remember Barishnikov? only the best male dancer EVER!
also, there are other countries with extreme attitudes towards sports... remember the colombian soccer player who was killed after he accidently scored a goal for the other team?

Posted by: mo | August 13, 2008 11:44 AM | Report abuse

I've been watching the South Ossetian Olympics.

First gold medal go to Saakasshvilli.
For being the world's worst secret agent.

Georgean tank crews win the fastest retreat on foot ever.

Russia wins the promotion of sports award by converting NATO bases into soccer fields.

G.W. Arbusto gets Olympic sponsor award for rewarding world's worst secret agent with 300 million dollars.

Posted by: Brag | August 13, 2008 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I agree, Mudge. I think you misunderstood me on screening.

There are some issues that can cause /as a side effect/ growth delays that need to be diagnosed as early as possible, not just for gymnastics, but for overall life quality-- and in some cases, life expectancy. Hyperflexibility, while a natural talent in gymnastics, actually can also be a marker for potentially crippling or life-endangering problems.

I think some of those problems are being blamed on gymnastics when they are actually genetic to start with.

Still, I can't think of a single reason why exercise and keeping at a lean weight could be bad for ANY of those conditions. In fact, it'd be highly recommended.

The individual needs to know the risks-- or the parents, for proper rehab and such.

Hyperflexibility by itself needs to be balanced by higher isometric strength, support, and learning proper technique and control that a joint is NEVER hyperflexed during a move. It can be done. It just needs more careful conditioning and training.

That actually can make the person much less resistant to injury later in life and delay crippling joint issues... if done right. Injuries, though, must be rehabbed throughly.

I think that if we're going to call teaching kids to exercise and work hard "child abuse", I mean, this nation has lost all grip of reality and common sense. It's gone over into fluffy bunny slipper thinking, 100%.

There are absolutely parents who go too far. There are kids who are naturally obsessive about perfection, too. You can't make people stop being human.

Posted by: Wilbrod | August 13, 2008 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Absolutely agree, Wilbrod.

But I keep coming back to the same problem: you just CANNOT become a Phelps, a Tourischeva, a Shawn Johnson, an Alex Rodriguez, a Barishnikov, a Brett Favre, a Dorothy Hamill, a Larry Byrd, without bending your entire life -- and the life of your family and/or support system -- to that one absolute goal, starting from a very young age (I think making a distinction between starting at age 3 or 4 versus starting at age 6 or 7 is pretty meaningless).

Almost by definition, the kind of lifelong effort needed to rise to these kinds of levels of achievement are outside the "normal" range of what most of us think of as a "normal" childhood. You read about skaters getting up at 4 a.m. to practice two hours before school-- that's simply plain nuts...unless you wanna be Peggy Fleming.

How do you know which five-year-old has the killer instinct, the heart, the innate talent, the indefinable "something" to be the world champaion at [whatever it is]? You can't know. And so you have to encourage the entire field of ten thousand kids, because somewhere in that herd there is one Bart Starr, one Willie Mays, one Nellie Kim. And I'm not sure it is much different than what our society does to lawyers and doctors: if you don't dedicate yourself to ungodly amounts of study starting in 9th or 10th grade, your aren't going to get into college and then law school or med school. And when you gratuate from law school, if you want to make partner, your work your ass off billing 16-hour days 6 1/2 days a week; that's no life either. Interns and residents are firecely competitive and work insanely hellacious shifts (to no good purpose in my view); is that much different?

And since we all support the system by rooting for these athletes, we are all complicit in the system.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | August 13, 2008 12:33 PM | Report abuse

i don't know mudge - there ARE some kids that know at a very early age that they absolutely love dancing/sports/whathaveyou and decide to devote all their time to it... i have a feeling for every mrs. ramsey tarting her daughter up there are just as many peggy flemings that begged her mom to let her train at 4am.
i knew from a very early age that i wanted to be a dancer and i trained since i could walk getting more serious about at about age 7... i took every class i could and all the competitions, volunteering at the studio so that i could take more classes... a serious skiing accident ended that dream tho... ah chance... but then the life of a dancer (as well as gymnast) is very short lived in the spotlight - and a plethora of injuries to boot!

Posted by: mo | August 13, 2008 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I wouldn't in any way dispute that sometimes it's the kids who are the driving force, mo, and I have no problem with that. I even suspect that if the kid isn't on board with the program, sooner or later he/she will drop out or burn out. I don't think any of the top, top stars are where they are solely because Daddy or Mommy was a frustrated [whatever]. At some point the athlete has to take over and be responsible for his/her own course. That's why we are unconcerned about Brett Favre versus what's in the mind of a 14-year-old; we aren't quite sure at what age the athlete is capable of making informed decisions about his/her life. And we aren't concerned with wondering how much training and punishment a 24-year-old can take, whereas we *do* have to think about it for a 9-year-old.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | August 13, 2008 12:55 PM | Report abuse

and there's the rub 'mudge (another reason i don't want kids)
makes me wonder how hard phelps parents pushed him vice his desire... dunno, seems to be that man is allll about competition and winning - he broke the world record by 4 seconds and was disappointed cuz he knew he coulda gone faster!!! but wow! can you imagine what elation he must be feeling right now??

Posted by: mo | August 13, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Just an outstanding column...but then it's Tom Boswell, for whom the outstanding is normal.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | August 13, 2008 1:46 PM | Report abuse

For what it is worth, Phelps has ADHD and is un-medicated. Make of that what you will.

Posted by: RD Padouk | August 13, 2008 2:54 PM | Report abuse

rd - that actually explains a lot!

Posted by: mo | August 13, 2008 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I thought these Chinese gymnasts looked about 12 years old. These girls, like many other Chinese athletes, come from poor rural areas of the country. To the parents, having a child that is an elite athlete means that the family standard of living is sure to go up. However, many of their athletes, get little or no education. The goverment does not provide stipends or opportunities to get the education that they missed. When I was watching these girls, I thought of what would become of them a decade from now. Would they end with permanent injuries for life and jobless because they are uneducated. The only thing they learned is to do gymnastics, nothing else.

Posted by: Crystal | August 13, 2008 7:26 PM | Report abuse

This morning as we were watching the female (I have a hard time calling kids I can't legally date women) gymnasts, my wife asked "What do the Americans have that the Chinese girls don't?"

I said "Besides blond hair?"

She said "Hips."

Posted by: yellojkt | August 13, 2008 9:31 PM | Report abuse

After their carreer is over some of the chinese gymnasts will join Cirque du Soleil.

Posted by: ET | August 14, 2008 5:18 AM | Report abuse

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