The Olympians has been a labor of love for exactly two years. It is my sketchbook as I prepare for the mural masterpiece, a book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
While my book’s focus is on the XVIII Tokyo Olympiad, I use my blog as an excuse to write about anything even remotely related to these areas: the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympics overall, Japan, and sports in general. In other words, I think of my blog as therapy for a restlessly curious mind.
How else could I go 730 straight days without missing a post?
It’s been exactly two years since I started my journey to understand the context, the organization and the stories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. My father was at those games as a news producer for NBC, and I turned one years old on Opening Day.
I moved to Tokyo for a third time in January, 2014, excited by Tokyo’s selection as the host city for the 2020 Summer Games. Surprised to find not a single book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in English, I endeavored to write the definitive record. On May 1, 2015, I started my blog, The Olympians is in many ways, the first draft of my book.
All, thank you for your wonderful comments and support!
But when you listen to people in the know, former gymnasts who grew up in the seemingly cruel world of competitive gymnastics, these stories of abuse are no surprise.
Wendy Bruce Martin won a bronze medal as a part of the US women’s gymnastics team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She currently runs a consultancy that helps athletes with the mental and emotional aspects of competition, and has thought deeply about what she calls the “cult culture of gymnastics.” Martin believes it is a culture that feeds an addiction, as she writes in a blog post:
Gymnastics is like being in an unfair relationship, it takes way more than it gives back to the gymnast, and whatever it needs from us gymnasts, we give it. When it does give back, it gives us feelings that reach straight into our souls. The little tastes of success are enough to keep us working, and get us addicted.
I was willing to give anything to gymnastics and I was willing to give everything. My addiction had me focused mostly on my immediate gratification. As long as I could perform my skills, I was willing to ignore the advice from my Doctor. When my Doctors told me to take time off of gymnastics to heal, I didn’t. I pushed myself and worked in pain, and when I couldn’t handle the pain, I begged the Doctor to help. I begged for something to help ease my pain and so against my Doctors advice, I made them give me Cortisone shots in my ankles and wrists.
When I was training, I blackened my eyes when I fell on my head on the beam after fasting for three days before a competition. “I don’t coach fat gymnasts” was a common refrain from coaches antagonizing me about my weight. I competed on an injured ankle swollen to the size of a baseball. At one point, I required monthly cortisone injections to limp through my floor routine.
After I broke my femur at the 1985 world championships, I had the cast removed early under pressure from my coaches so that I could train for the next national championships. I competed and won, but not without breaking the opposite ankle in the process.
The message I got was that if you couldn’t take it, you were weak. If you complained, you didn’t deserve to be on the team. In fact, if you perceived it as abuse, rather than just plain old tough coaching, you were delusional.
The problem that these two former gymnasts reveal is that it is not just the children and the coaches that perpetuate this culture of success and abuse, the parents of these children do as well. Martin explains that she had bulimia, an eating disorder. And an adult close to her was aware of this issue, and could have decided to reveal this secret, the consequences of which could have led to treatment and possibly a loss on the Olympics squad. But, she wrote, the adult was also complicit in the culture.
This adult told me that they knew about my eating disorder and they said, “Just don’t do it too much.” I was so relieved that they didn’t want to send me to treatment or therapy. I knew that I would miss out on my chance on being an Olympian. This was exactly the response I wanted. I shook my head and promised not to do it too much, and walked away in relief.
To me, Bulimia was something I was willing to sacrifice for the chance of my dreams. I was never upset at this adult for not doing more or forcing me to go into therapy. I was fine with their passive and non-confrontational advice on my disorder. I knew that they didn’t want to ruin my dream, and they didn’t want to be the one who spoke up and destroyed the 14 years of training I devoted my childhood to. They understood the Cult Culture of Gymnastics and so did I.
Sey has similar sentiments, understanding that the child gets so locked in the culture that “you learn to focus only on achievement and to disregard your own sense of right and wrong, along with your own well-being.” But she goes on to say that parents and adults do not have that excuse, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse.
Because of this, I can understand how young gymnasts might be confused about whether and how to speak up for themselves when they’ve been mistreated. But there’s no excuse for adults to turn a blind eye to sexual misconduct.
The strength and discipline of our gymnasts shouldn’t cause us to forget that most of them are children for a majority of their careers. The coaches, officials and other adults charged with harnessing their talents must also stand up for their well-being.
I wish I’d had someone to stand up for me.
Martin exclaimed the same.
The bottom line is that NOTHING is more important than the health of a child. No skills, routine, meet, medal, or trophy is more important than the child. Gymnastics will end one day, then what will the gymnast, coach, and parents be left with?
Robbie Brightwell was a 16-year old student in Shropshire, England, and was straining to keep his eyes open while doing research in his local library when he came upon an old magazine and was struck by a picture of runners in a competition sometime in the late 19th century. As he related in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl, he was surprised to see that in an area called Much Wenlock, not far from his own, there was a sporting event called “The Olympics”.
Intrigued, Brightwell, who went on to captain Britain’s track and field team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, began impromptu research into the Much Wenlock Games, and learned that Baron de Coubertin, at the age of 27, came to Much Wenlock and met an 81-year-old English physician, who planted the idea for what we now recognize as the Modern Olympics.
But as is true with any great endeavor, new ideas and initiatives are often built on earlier iterations. According to The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt, events held in both England and France could be considered precursors to Coubertin’s Olympics.
The Cotswold Games: In the early part of the 17th century, fairs and festivals were a common part of the English country lifestyle. One of the biggest in England was the Cotswold Games in Chipping Camden, a mixture of fun and sports, contests and gambling. As can be seen in the poster for the Cotswold Games, also known as the “Cotswold Olimpicks”, there was a mock castle created on a hill, in front of which was the main theater for the events. Developed by Robert Dover, a “charismatic and charming man”, the Cotswold Games featured “hare coursing and horse racing, wrestling and shin kicking, stick fighting and hammer throwing.” Dover established this country fair in 1612 and was able to organize the Cotswold Games for about 30 years. Unfortunately for Dover, and perhaps the community of Chipping Camden, the 1630s saw a shift from the hedonistic reign of King James I to a more conservative, puritanical approach of Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the King in 1645. That put an end to the Cotswold Games.
The Republican Olympiad:When the French monarchy was overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789, leaders of the new republic were excited about change to come. One of the leaders of the revolution, Charles Gilbert Romme, devised a way to update the calendar for a new, enlightened France. With five days added to the year, with the inclusion of another day added to a Leap Year, which would take place every four years. According to Goldblatt, “Romme thought that the lead day might be a good occasion for staging public festivities and games: ‘we suggest calling it the French Olympiad and the final year the Olympics Year.” In 1796, the first Republican Olympiad was held in Paris, where hundreds of thousands came out for games, music, dancing, running and wrestling. Winners of competitions won wreaths of laurels, pistols, sabres, vases and watches. The Republican Olympiad continued for two more cycles, but died out before the start of the 19th century.
Pablo Fanque’s Travelling Circus Royal: As Goldblatt noted, the Olympics were often more often associated with circuses in the 18th and 19th centuries in England. One of the most popular traveling circuses was called Pablo Fanque’s travelling Circus Royal, which offered an “unrivalled equestrian troupe” and ” new and novel features in the Olympian Games.” Pablo Fanque was said to be the most popular circus proprietor in a golden age of circuses in Victorian England, and was quite accomplished not only as an equestrian, but also as a master of the corde volante. But as you may be able to tell, Fanque’s association to the Olympics is peripheral at best. His association to The Beatles may be stronger. The album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” featured a song called “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite“, the lyrics of which are primarily lifted from an 1843 poster marketing Fanque’s Circus Royal.
The Much Wenlock Olympian Games: Dr Penny Brookes of Shropshire, England, agreed with the thinking of the time, that it was important to promote “the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town…by the encouragement of outdoor recreations and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in athletic exercises and industrial attainments.” The first Much Wenlock Olympic Games were held in 1850. While these Olympic Games were a rural fair, they also had a firm sporting focus. In addition to fun events like wheelbarrow and sack races, both amateurs and professionals competed in cricket, football, archery, hurdling, running, shooting, cycling and a pentathlon. Large cash prizes were awarded.
When Baron de Coubertin, was told about the Much Wenlock Olympic Games, he made it a point to visit and meet Dr Brookes, a seminal act in the origin story of the modern Olympic Games.
The recent revelations of decades of child sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics has created a firestorm. The spotlight has given increased awareness to the fact that “six Olympic sport governing bodies have been beset over the years by allegations of mishandled complaints of abuse,” according to the Washington Post.
In other words, cases of sexual abuse by members associated with such organizations as USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, USA Taekwando and U.S. Speedskating have been essentially hushed up over the years.
See this link for the first part of my posts on sexual abuse in USA Gymnastics.
And now the US Government is getting involved, and their sights are on the United States Olympics Committee (USOC). On February 21, 2017, Senator Diane Feinstein of California announced that she wants her colleagues to agree on an amendment to a federal law that governs Olympic sports organizations – The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act. This law was passed in 1978 in order to have a single governing body (USOC) manage the various individual national sports organizations, as well as assist in the process of selecting Olympic team members.
But what has been recently understood is that when suspicions of abuse emerge, the USOC’s policy has been one of passivity and reactivity, and that language in the Ted Stevens Act“has been interpreted by lawyers to afford coaches suspected of sexual abuse more rights than they would have if they worked in other industries.”
The Ted Stevens Act requires an Olympic governing body give fair notice, due process and a hearing to any member athlete, coach, or official it wants to ban; requirements that have sometimes prevented governing bodies from banning coaches suspected of abuse. Other youth-serving organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America, have policies requiring swift actions when abuse is suspected, always erring in favor of protecting children from harm.
Senator Feinstein’s objective is to re-write the law so that any governing body affiliated with an Olympic governing organization must report cases of sexual abuse immediately to law enforcement authorities, as well as prevent the common practice of rotating a suspected child abuser from one club to another without any official record.
On March 2, US senators put considerably more pressure on the chief executive of the USOC, Scott Blackmun, to provide greater detail about how the USOC has handled these allegations of sexual abuse. In a letter from Senator John Thune of South Dakota and Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas to Blackmun, they say they have “serious concerns about the extent to which the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is meeting its mandate to protect the health and safety of athletes.”
If you want to be the best, you need to train like the best. Here is a link to a great self-help article on the strength and flexibility exercises that Olympians use. In trying to understand these exercises, I did an image search so that you can see what the article is trying to describe.
Carrie Gaerte is a physical therapist and athletic trainer for USA Gymnastics, and she recommends the seated spinal stretch, the reclined half-pigeon and the achilles extension.
Water polo athletes, Kami Craig, Courtney Mathewson and KK Clark build their strength and endurance with these routines: the leveled plank, the dumbbell step up, and the step jump.
The coach of gold-medal winning wrestler, Helen Maroulis, recommends push ups, the dumbbell row and the pause squat in Maroulis’ training regimen.