Revolution #140, August 17, 2008

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Two (Not So) Different Sports Systems:

Putting Athletes Through a Meatgrinder

The race for the gold is on. China and the U.S. are going head to head, favorites to win the most total medals and gold medals. In the buildup to the games, and in various ways throughout the media coverage in the U.S., a picture is being portrayed of an inherently superior U.S. sports system, as an expression of what are supposed to be fundamentally better values in U.S. society. When Team USA wins, it proves the superiority of the American system. When China wins an event, the undertone is that this is the result of the unfair advantages of a sports system that financially subsidizes sports, and mistreats and even abuses athletes.

But what you find if you really look at the sports systems in both countries is that the United States takes second place to nobody when it comes to providing massive funding for high level athletics, and imposing a win-at-all-costs ethic that chews up athletes.

Government Funding/ Corporate Funding

Compared to China, the U.S. has a more decentralized system for bringing forward elite athletes. The U.S. system relies more on corporations and on organized high school and college athletics programs, although by the time U.S. athletes get to the Olympic level, the system becomes more centralized because it falls under the purview of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

But focusing on the form through which sports get funded doesn’t get to the essence of what is actually going on with athletes. Underlying this is the fact that, despite the “socialist” forms maintained in China, both the U.S. and China are capitalist countries.

While elite athletes in China do come up in a state athletic system, their role in society is still framed by the same kind of capitalist relations that set the terms for sports in the United States. In China there’s Liu Xiang, winner of the 110-meter hurdle at the Athens Olympics, who has endorsements with Nike, Coca Cola, Kia, Visa, Yili Dairy, Shanshan Xifu (a state-owned suit company) and many other companies. Yao Ming, who carried the Chinese flag in the opening ceremonies this week, has become one of the highest paid sports stars in the world. He and LeBron James co-star in a Coke ad run constantly during the Olympics. And we don’t even have to talk about American athletes. Their drive to become richer than the next athlete is well documented every day in the sports pages.

The fact is that there are way too many similarities between the capitalist U.S. sports system and the capitalist Chinese sports system. And these are bad similarities of a capitalist system that engenders capitalist relations in every sphere in society. In sports these relations include victories over the broken backs of those who never make it, sports serving capitalist profits, and sports promoting national chauvinism—“my country over your country.”

Is it the case that athletes in the U.S. are at an unfair disadvantage, in comparison to China, because the U.S. Olympic Committee spends less on Olympians than the Chinese government spends? Not really, because U.S. athletes receive massive funding in other ways. Many U.S. Olympians have received college scholarships, free room and board, use of excellent training facilities, and coaches, all provided to them by the colleges. Even at the high school level, these athletes have received free training and use the facilities provided to them through the schools—many of them private schools, where the top athletes get scholarships. At the very elite level, many U.S. athletes who will participate in the Olympics have had private coaching paid for by shoe and clothing companies, such as Nike, Adidas and Puma, and many receive additional funds from these companies for wearing their shoes and clothing. So, despite the fact that there is a difference in where the funds come from for U.S. and Chinese Olympic athletes, it is really impossible to say whether one or the other receives more free funds for training and coaching.

Exploiting Athletes

One message you will pick up on, if you listen closely to how athletes are profiled during the games, or if you read more in-depth sports analysis, is that the U.S. sports system supposedly is better than the Chinese system because it values athletes as people, while the Chinese system just uses young people who show athletic talent—that unlike Chinese athletes who are abused, over-trained and forced to compete while injured, who are not allowed to spend any time on academics, the U.S. sports system values athletes as people.

It is true in China, for many peasants and poor people, sending their children to the government sports schools means giving them access to much better education, health care, and nutrition than they would otherwise receive in the countryside. Success as an athlete would also give the child a chance to make enough money to help support the parents.

But this is very much the case in the ghettos and barrios of the United States. The movie Hoop Dreams, for example, documents how the hopes of whole families rest on the chance that someone can get a basketball scholarship to a decent high school, and maybe a college—with millions dreaming of a pro career that only a handful actually get. Even for people in less desperate circumstances, a child’s athletic career is seen as a possible source of financial security. In Why Johnny Hates Sports—Why Organized Sports Are Failing Our Children and What We Can Do About It, Fred Engh writes about parents “hoping a child’s basketball accomplishments can be the parent’s 401(k) ticket.”

And what do those athletes do when they get to college? If we are going to hear about how Chinese are athletes first and scholars second, let’s look at the system here. Anyone who has participated in big-time college sports knows that there is a contradiction in that term “student-athlete.” Even at small Division III colleges, where there are no athletic scholarships, athletes are pushed to spend more time on the field or track, at the gym or the weight room, than in the classroom and library studying.

And at the earliest levels, sports in the United States are highly commercialized. Even at high schools with high-level sports programs, let alone college athletic teams, sports programs rely on corporate funding from companies like Nike and Adidas.

Stealing Youth

One of the charges you hear about the Chinese sports system is that athletes are separated as children from their families. This is true, but again, let’s look a little closer to home. The time commitment made by these youth in America is huge, and it is just as true in women’s basketball as it is in men’s. In the article, “They Got Game,” Rebecca R. Kahlenberg states, “[Women] players compete year-round, with one to three practices weekly and typically more than 100 games during the year.” She quotes the director of operations for D.C.-based One on One Basketball, who says, “In the past 10 years all major youth sports have become year-round commitments.”

A senior in high school told the Washington Post, “I’ve played in over 90 games a year since the seventh grade and that doesn’t include school games. When I was 13, I played in Martinsville, Richmond, and Alexandria on the same day. The coach just put us all in his van and drove [the 300 miles round-trip].”(“Our Own March Madness, All Year-Round,”, by Patrick Walsh, The Washington Post, March 24, 2002). Cully Payne, a sophomore high school basketball player, who verbally committed to DePaul before starting high school, “has been so busy playing recently that his dad said he saw his son ‘three days in July.’” (“Prep Coaches Cringe, But Players Flock to AAU Ball,” by John Lemon, Chicago Daily Herald, August 12, 2006.)

There have been a number of exposés in the U.S. media pointing out how Chinese athletes are subjected to abuses from coaches. An article in the San Jose Mercury News reported that, “[Chinese] coaches at times push their students hard, even hitting them when they don’t meet standards”(August 13, 2007.) USA Today, quoting a former IOC member, reported  that “[Chinese] gymnasts were being physically abused.”(June 14, 2007)

But this happens in the United States as well. Women’s gymnastics (excluding rhythmic and trampoline) will be a hot event in the Olympics, pitting the U.S. against China for many of the competitive matches. Abuse of young athletes is particularly extreme in the world of women’s gymnastics.

After interviewing former U.S. Olympian Dominique Moceanu, who at age 14 was part of the 1996 gold-medal team, the Los Angeles Times wrote that Moceanu recounted how “Martha Karolyi once grabbed her by the neck and slammed her face into a phone and that former coach Bela Karolyi twice berated her about her weight in front of national teammates. She also related that when she hurt her neck in practice Martha Karolyi told her to call her parents. She recounted how she was forced to do 16 uneven bars routines in a row by Martha Karolyi.” (“Dominique Moceanu Accuses Martha and Bela Karolyi of Abuse,” by Diane Pucin, July 23, 2008)

Jennifer Sey was, at one time, the No. 1 gymnast in America. An article in The Observer newspaper revealed some of the allegations in Sey’s book, Chalked Up, which exposed “widespread eating dis-orders, coaches suspected of being sexually attracted to their young charges, and a brutal physical regime that leaves gymnasts crippled in later life and bearing psychological scars.”

The Observer article writes that Sey’s “life as a competitive gymnast was one of seemingly unending competitive pressure that went far beyond the vault or the parallel bars. Most damaging was the constant pressure to lose weight put on the girls, many of whom were barely in their teens and often younger. Sey describes eating disorders being common and coaches humiliating their athletes by calling them fat. In one memorable scene a coach picks up a loudhailer and berates a young gymnast in public for putting on 2lb. ‘At this rate you’ll look like your mother in no time,’ the coach screams, as the mother watches in the crowd and does nothing to intervene. In another incident, Sey’s coach chastises her for eating a whole bagel for dinner.”

And, according to the Observer, “perhaps the most controversial part of the book are allegations that top coaches had unhealthy attractions towards the pre-pubescent girls who populate the sport. Those parts of the book have caused ructions in the gymnastic world, with Sey being both condemned and applauded for bringing the sport’s ‘dirty little secret’ into the open. ‘It is the exception not the rule, but it does exist,’ Sey said. But she added that the really shocking thing was the attitude of silence within the sport. ‘There are suspected improprieties, but no one is bothered to ask. No one wants to upset the apple cart,’ she said. (“Secret World of a Gymnast: Starvation, Sex and Fear: The Shocking New Memoirs of a Top U.S. Athlete Reveal the Dark Side of the Struggle to Win Gold,” by Paul Harris, April 27, 2008).

Sey’s allegations have provided a glimpse into the treatment of young women gymnasts in the U.S. sports system, but the kinds of abuses she alleges are documented in other testimony and studies. One study carried out by the University of Utah found that 59 percent of elite U.S. Olympic hopefuls in gymnastics admitted to having at least one type of eating disorder. Another study found that 62 percent of college gymnasts (generally considered too old for world-class competition) practiced at least one form of anorexia (vomiting or the use of laxatives, diuretics or diet pills).

Sacrificing Bodies

The U.S. media has run exposes on how Chinese athletes are forced to perform even when injured. An article in the New York Times leading up to the Olympics wrote: “For many (Chinese) athletes playing through injuries is standard practice.” (“China Presses Injured Athletes in Quest for Gold,” by Howard W. French, June 20, 2008)

And there have been exposures in the U.S. media about Chinese former athletes who end up with nothing after their bodies have been used up by the sports system.

But again, this is endemic in U.S. sports. Kerri Strug, a U.S. gymnast, competed in the 1996 Olympics on one ankle after being injured, and then had to be carried by coach Bella Karolyi to the medal podium. Don’t tell us that only Chinese athletes play while injured.

What about the NFL? Brent Boyd, who is temporarily blind in one eye from his six years as an NFL lineman told the Los Angeles Times, “I couldn’t tell you how many [concussions] I had…. We didn’t count them. They were a nuisance, like hitting your funny bone.” Boyd, who cannot work, gets a $1,500 monthly NFL disability check.

A still-mainly-suppressed scandal is the scope of severe brain damage to NFL players. An article in Men’s Journal listed the following examples: “Post-mortem exams of Andre Waters (suicide at 44), Terry Long (suicide at 45), Justin Strzelczyk (car crash at 36), Mike Webster (heart attack at 50)—showed staggering brain damage in men so young.” (“Casualties of the NFL”) Other buried scandals include the widespread abuse of painkillers to enable players to continue in games, often resulting in body-wrecking injuries.

While playing for the Oakland Raiders Pro-Bowler lineman Dave Pear was injured in a game against Seattle in 1979. He told Men’s Journal, “I came over to the sideline and the team doctor—his nickname was Needles—sends me back in the game. He says I had a broken neck, and I was in agony the rest of the season; but he said I was a hypochondriac and there was nothing wrong with me, and shot me up with whatever he said I needed.” Pear has been in constant, grinding pain since, although he took handfuls of Percodan supplied by the Raiders staff in order to play through the Super Bowl in 1980. Pear gets a $600 /month pension from the NFL.

Sports Does Not Have To Be This Way

The U.S. can point a finger at how Chinese athletes are trained and treated, but the reality is that both countries are putting a tremendous amount of resources into developing elite athletes to compete in the Olympics. And for both countries, athletes are essentially commodities—something to exploit for glory and profit.

As the medals are being handed out in Beijing these next couple of weeks, just think about what has been stated above about what athletes in these two countries go through in their attempts to become Olympic champions—physical and mental abuse, playing while injured, placing athletics ahead of academics, promoting a culture of greed, spending a ridiculous amount of time in training at the expense of being a well-rounded person, and ending up broke at the end of their athletic careers. This is not something for Americans and Chinese to be proud of, and this is not the best that humanity can do in sports and athletics.

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