Today I wanted to bring a little attention to an article that recently caught my eye. It’s a piece based off an interview with Dominique Moceanu, the youngest American, at age 14, to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. The article is part of a series, “Tell Me When It’s Over”, in which former athletes speak about the moment in which they realized their careers were finished.
Moceanu does not mince any words. I am not sure when the interview was conducted, but there is something almost child-like and innocent in how straightforward she is in relaying the alterior motives and politics in which her pure love of the sport was inevitbly intertwined. “[I]t was never the competition that frightened me”, Moceanu recalls. “The hard part is the self-serving adults who wanted to use me as a means to an end”. She then recounts how she was constantly belittled and abused after being taken under the wings of the world-famous Karolyis at the age of ten. The road to her Olympic gold was by no means easy, and even after victory there were no signs of gratitude from her coaches.
Accompanying the writing is a photograph of Moceanu at fourteen. Her leotard is white and her cheeks are still round with the slightest hint of baby fat. I long to reach out and give her a hug, even though I know that in real life she is near thirty now, because I know how it is. I think that anyone who was ever deeply and emotionally involved with a sport–especially one that relies on images of perfecition and beauty– has a lens into a whole different rabbit hole.
I’ll never know exactly what it is that motivates some coaches to act in this way.* Maybe it’s tradition: the Russian Way, or the Bulgarian Way, or the Chinese Way is the way your ancestors did it, it’s the way sponsored by the government, and it’s the only way. Or perhaps the reasoning is empirical: harassing and hammering perfection into children is surely one way to make them obey. It doesn’t work on everyone, for sure, especially those with weak nerves, but for some, it ignites a cold and dangerous fire inside. I don’t think these men and women view what they do as wrong, for they are focused on creating champions, not well-balanced and stable human beings. Coaches are mysterious and private people, and the more vicious and crazy and flawed they are, the harder it is to hate them. Maybe that’s the tactic all along.
Without rambling too much, I encourage you all to read Moceanu’s “exit interview”. Her thoughts add an important level of humanity and gravity to the games we all love and know and cheer for. It is easy to be caught up in the glamour and the gallantry of the Games. Even for a hardcore cynic and ex-gymnast like myself, watching the “Fierce Five” blew my mind away with the beauty of the sport and brought a glow to my heart for these girls, who seemed so very tiny and earnest. But when those Russian gymansts cried big fat tears all over television for their silver medal, there must have been a little more than just dissapointment going on.
The Olympics is a shiny, sparkly time in which we all hold hands and play good ole’ sports and feel proud of our nations in a squeaky-clean way (aside from the occasional Chinese doping incident). Our athletes make us proud because they are so single-minded and incessantly loyal in their pursuits. There is no need for brain twisting or overthinking because there are no games. The goal is physical and explicit: all we have to do is sit back, knock down a few beers, and shout for U.S.A. It is important to remember, however, that no pursuit so grand can ever remain unadulterated, and that any lifestyle based on the sole image of perfection is ulitmately unsustainable.
*Edit: I also strongly recommend reading Karolyi’s “autobiography”, Feel No Fear. Still not sure how that man works but it provides the opposite perspective in a colorful way.