With the world already in turmoil over Covid19, a documentary about the abusive culture in USA gymnastics almost went unnoticed. Athlete A is a heart reaching documentary describing the neglect and abuse young girls suffered for years due to USA gymnastics not wanting to damage their image.
The documentary focuses on the lack of acknowledgement and action from the USA gymnastics and also raises a deeper question about the starting age of children in competitive sports.
Historically, competitive sports have been aimed at adults, although women were actually banned from running events until 1972 due to the myth that a women’s insides could fall out if she competed in running.
Thankfully times have and are still changing for women in sports but children until now haven't had a voice to ask for a change in the system. It could be argued that raising a child to compete in a particular sport is a good idea if you have the knowledge and money to provide good training.
The Williams sisters are a prime example of this. Their parents openly admit to getting pregnant with the sole intention of making them pursue tennis. Titles, glory, money and fame accompany them wherever they go. However, this is not the case for countless other children who were thrown in the sport.
Andre Agassi's autobiography details decades of abuse caused by his fathers desire to produce the worlds best tennis player. He goes into great detail about the physical and mental toll the pursuit of glory has had on him. Yes he obtained 8 Grand Slam titles and an Olympic medal but at what cost?
He was robbed of his childhood and tennis was an obsession rather than a passion. He discovered the painful truth behind the pursuit of glory that is often eluded to in Ecclesiastes, it's tasteless, there is no real long term satisfaction that comes from it.
It is interesting that because performance abuse is channeled towards an outcome that the world glorifies, such as an Olympic medal, it is often dismissed and coaches/parents are not held accountable for their actions.
The world of the none elite claim ignorance to some extent in the naive belief that pushing children from a young age with countless hours of training and nutrionial “guidelines” is what it takes to produce a winner.
Stories frequently ripple through social media of injuries young people have to deal with due to over training. Fractured backs, damaged kidneys, torn ligaments, underdeveloped bodies due to huge hormone imbalances along with a plethora of mental health issues, most commonly depression and eating disorders.
Could these issues be avoided if we delayed the ability to compete until a child is 18 years old and has the right to decide for themselves if they want to pursue a sport to an elite level? At 18 years old, one would hope they would have the ability to make the decision for themselves, aware of the risks and rewards involved.
From time to time we see an aspiring child prodigy on the news claiming to be the next world champion, but it’s interesting that more often than not these player are burnt out by their 20s and often reveal the psychological and physical toll on their bodies became too much.
Their whole identity was wrapped up in their sport and once they finish high school, were left wondering who they are and did they even really want to play that sport in the first place?
Identity outside of sports
The transition from competitive athlete lifestyle to ordinary exercise is not easy but it is far more difficult for athletes who have only ever played one sport and have put everything they have into it.
In New Zealand, rugby is a sport played as soon as you can carry the ball. Kiwis idolise the All Blacks and if you asked most young boys what they want to be when they grow up, they will say an All Black.
However, rugby associations have over recent years become aware of the mental health issues suffered by players when they don't make the team they are striving for or suffer an injury that removes them from the game indefinitely.
In a bid to help their players, they have invested in sports psychologists whose sole job is to help players figure out their identity apart from the game. They encourage hobbies and social gatherings prior to an athlete leaving the sport in the hopes that they will have an easier transition to ordinary life.
Having faith sets some athletes apart because faith provides a wider perspective on life rather than the extremely narrow view that personal glory is the sole purpose.
Faith grounds a person and keeps them humble especially if it comes from a strong theological foundation, even when the world shifts around and is turned upside down through a sporting career-ending or the acknowledgement of the mental health one is suffering.
God provides the support an individual requires to not be consumed by doubt and defeat but to heal and transition to the next thing God is calling them to. As a Christian it is important to consider the values we are encouraging in our young people with competitive sport.
There is nothing wrong with using the talents God has blessed an athlete with to compete. Chariots of Fire is an excellent example of a Christian understanding the gifts God gave him. As brothers and sisters in Christ, our goal should be to support and encourage Christian sporting talent in a healthy way which in turn reflects Glory.
Mhairi-Bronté Duncan plays Curling for New Zealand and uses her experiences as an athlete to inspire her writing.