Book of the week: Exposing child abusers of the Western world

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The Independent Online
Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The making and breaking of elite gymnasts and figure stakers By Joan Ryan (The Women's Press, paperback, pounds 8.99)

IN ALL its grim and grizzly detail, this book chronicles a conspiracy of cruelty for which those involved should be put on a chain gang and made to break rocks for the rest of their miserable lives.

Last week, some of the pharmaceutical Svengalis of the former East Germany went on trial for their role in stuffing the country's sporting elite full of "vitamin pills" and "cold cures". The only difference between that system and the American model ruthlessly exposed here is that one superstructure of repression crumbled along with the Berlin wall (though its influence is still felt wherever these Cold War criminals are allowed to ply their trade). Jesus still loves America, and America still loves its baby-faced icons, so the latter system lives on, leaving in its wake a scrap heap of broken bodies and mangled minds.

Apologies if this comes across as the work of a Daily Mail leader writer, but it is not melodrama. Anyone of a sensitive disposition should avoid. Midway through the first chapter: "If it isn't bleeding, don't worry about it," the sickening litany of torn tendons, stress fractures and cracked vertebrae made it difficult to carry on reading. There is a story of Betty Okikino, practising and competing with a broken neck, wearing a brace when resting; Kelly Garrison, pounding her ankle while waiting her turn until the pain of the stress fracture was numbed; Julissa Gomez, fatally snapping her neck in Tokyo.

When they X-rayed Garrison, doctors found 22 old stress fractures in her back bone, while delayed pubity left one 21 year old with the bone density of a woman aged 90. A study at Stamford, which sought to compare amenorrheaic and normally-menstruating athletes, had to look elsewhere for a control group: not one athlete on the team had periods.

Each chapter features a different facet of this apparatus of misery: eating disorders, for example, induced by the crazed and offensive pursuit of permanent pre-pubescence that produces generations of teenagers bingeing and puking for America.

There are the self-glorifying coaches from hell, and the parents from somewhere beyond that; the judges, who make things worse with their body fascism and fear of stepping out of line. There are unforgettable tales of abuse and humiliation - "This looks like you" arch-demon Bela Karolyi told one 13-year-old as he picked a cockroach off the gym floor.

There is even forced starvation: in the Seoul Olympics, even though the men's gymnastic team smuggled in food for the girls, one of them, Chelle Stack, still managed to lose eight pounds in four weeks. Then again, back home, she was in the habit of drinking three bottles of laxatives a week to avoid Karolyi's withering torrents of insults.

Christy Henrich, who should have been at the 1992 Olympics, died instead two years later, weighing less than 50 lbs. Karolyi blamed the parents.

The fact is, every single adult with a part to play in this horror story is guilty. As long as we demand grown-up feats from our sporting prodigies, young lives will continue to be ruined.