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September 3, 2008
I’ll take the silver
By Christopher Stefanick
The Olympics is a time to root for your nation, but more, for humanity. National ambitions and political conflicts take a back seat to the striving for greatness that unites us all. At least that’s what I kept trying to tell myself as I watched the women’s team gymnastics.
According to Olympic laws, competitors have to turn 16 during the Olympic year to be eligible to compete. Commentators during the event repeatedly pointed out that the Chinese women’s team appeared to be well under legal age. Legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, quoted in Time magazine, said, “obviously kids... and you’re telling the world they are 16? What arrogance”
(see http://www. time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1832312,00.html).
What their appearance made obvious has been substantiated by investigative reporting. Previously written Chinese news stories tracking their careers and other records found online reveal that three of the six team members were underage, as has been cited by major news sources such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and others. The Chinese government-issued passports stating their false ages are finally being investigated by the International Olympic Committee thanks to a growing mound of evidence.
The average weight of their largely pre-pubescent team was 77 pounds. The average weight of the U.S. team was 106 pounds, providing an obvious advantage to the Chinese in a sport where limberness and one’s ability to fly through the air with ease is essential.
The Olympic gymnast in China begins training at about age 3. They are scouted out by government officials and taken to live away from home to begin a life of intensive training. Commentators shared a story about one competitor calling home because she missed her family and wanted to go home. Her parents said she couldn’t turn down the amazing possibilities before her, for her sake and theirs. I couldn’t help but wonder if they had a choice. I also couldn’t help but think of those who started training at such an early age who didn’t quite make it all the way to the Olympics. How crushing for a young person and the family that sacrificed them.
Given their age advantage and the training they’ve engaged in since barely leaving diapers, it’s not at all surprising that these athletes were able to perform near perfection by the time of the Olympics. The girls of the Chinese “women’s” team gymnastics took gold. The U.S. team took silver. As I watched, my spirit sank. I sincerely wanted to cheer for humanity, but, despite their beautiful performances, it seemed that humanity wasn’t shining during this competition.
To the Chinese government, the Olympics apparently isn’t about an experience of human unity. Victory is all important. And that victory is not a statement that their athletes are amazing, but that their controlling, Communist government is capable of chiseling its people into excellence. Granted, they have produced excellent athletes, but they’ve also trained these young girls to lie and to compete unfairly.
We were reminded at this Olympics that China has joined the major players on the global stage. China is a powerful and increasingly wealthy country. The Chinese government has yet to join the world of honesty, integrity, family and freedom, all of which took a back seat to domination during women’s gymnastics. If that’s what has to be sacrificed to get the gold, I’m proud that our young women came home with silver medals.
Christopher Stefanick is director of the Denver Archdiocese’s Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry Office.