In every sport, there are those who are driven towards one goal and one goal only: to be the best. In the world of gymnastics, the Chinese team is considered one of the most ruthless and most powerful teams, taking children from their homes at the age of three and training them until they no longer achieve glory for their country. These children train every single day and only progress through the system if they are the best of the nation. There is no room for failure, allowing the Chinese to dominate competition after competition. The big question is, is it all worth it in the end? There has been great debate as to whether or not this is both ethical and beneficial to those who participate in the sport. The documentary "Little Big Dreams" follows the lives of several children who are enrolled in the Chinese gymnastics program.
A wall where the photos of China's greatest gymnasts in history are framed and recognized for their achievements
In regards to the basic rhetoric of the documentary, it is most obviously addressed to those who already have a basic knowledge of the sport of gymnastics and are interested in the controversy surrounding those who participate in the sport. Through the use of rhetorical devices such as interviews and videos of training, the creators paint a clear picture of the life that the children in the Chinese gymnastics training centers live. They show the cruelty of the coaches and the physically demanding regimen that the children go through, leading viewers to believe that despite the medals and prestige that come with success, the mental and physical battles are not worth the efforts.
One of the many training centers where the athletes practice on a daily basis
Is it Worth It: Those Who Believe it is Not
The arguments used against the lives that these children live are more prominently shown than the arguments for it. First of all, the children are shown crying almost constantly. The mental breakdowns that these children go through are just as horrifying as they are heart breaking. Studies show that gymnasts who progress to the highest levels of training are more likely to experience mental challenges such as anxiety and high stress, due to the extremely demanding conditions of the sport. Alternatively, those who are better at dealing with diverse situations and have support from family and friends are more likely to succeed in the sports that they participate in. In Chinese gymnastics, the children are taken away from their homes at the age of three, and are not allowed to return during their training. This sort of training makes them detached from the world and does not give them the support that athletes require to be mentally healthy throughout such vigorous training. This is one off the many reasons that people believe the Chinese training is far more detrimental than it is beneficial. While watching the documentary, viewers can see the children crying as they train, even being threatened with a cane and kicked for performing poorly. The rhetoric of showing this sort of behavior greatly portrays the idea that the Chinese gymnastics training is much more detrimental than anything else.
Above is a video of Chinese competitor Deng Linlin. There are several points in the video where commentators mention nervousness and minor errors. Nervousness is natural in situations like these, however studies show that coaches often reflect their anxieties onto the athletes themselves. That being said, in a video where Linlin nearly falls off of the beam one time, it is extremely obvious that the pressure is high and her nerves are proving to be against her.
The building that housed the 2008 Beijing Olympic Gymnastics events, home of one of the most controversial and ultimately devastating competitions.
Another point made against this sort of training is that the athletes have no idea how the real world works outside of their sport. There is no true way to compare the life of constant training and devotion to that of functioning as a regular individual. The author of the article, Jennifer Cheung, analyzes the life that her son now leads after spending twenty years in the sport. While he participates in many small businesses, he still does not know where he truly belongs in the real world, especially after spending so much time believing that he would be in the gymnastics community forever. Now, at 26 he is relearning how to live in the world.
Another argument for this case is that the physical demands of the sport cause lifelong problems, such as injuries that will never go away or stunted growth. One of the issues that have been studied extensively are fractures of the wrist. This type of injury has become more and more prominent throughout the years. Another study groups together several sets of data that were taken regarding the number of injuries and comparing them to the number of people involved in the sport. While the numbers do not seem so drastic overall, especially to those who are involved in the sport and are exposed to this sort of demanding physical nature on a daily basis, they are significantly higher than that of other more tame sports. In the documentary, children are seen falling, being stretched beyond limits, and pushing themselves in nearly every way. It is impossible to be trained to hard from such a young age and to not have lasting effects for the rest of their lives. This argument does well to show that the training these kids endure is far less likely to pay off in the end.
Is It Worth It: Those Who Believe It Is
The arguments for putting children through this sort of grueling lifestyle are scarce. Those who truly support it are children who have been taught from birth that they are only good people if they are the best, and that their parents and coaches will only love them and support them if they win gold medals. The parents believe that the representation of the country and the honor it brings to the families is greater than the mental and physical state of their child. The tears that they shed when they leave their children at the hands of the aggressive coaches are only a small price to pay for the eternal greatness that comes from having their names etched onto a plaque on a wall, forever remembered as one of the greatest competitors of all time.
Another argument that is presented within this documentary is that children who grow up with their parents are lazy. They will be given love and care throughout their lives which will allow them to become soft and will be detrimental to their growth overall. They believe that the end results of the potential glory will be more emotionally rewarding than if they were to just be regular individuals
I personally found this argument to be extremely convincing. I grew up competing in the sport of gymnastics, and spent many years under the tutelage of a coach who failed to train her athletes in a healthy and positively influenced way. That being said, even on the worst days, she couldn't compare to the horrors that are shown in this documentary. Gymnastics is already a demanding sport, and without proper training and support, it can destroy a person. These children are taught to attach their self worth to their performances, not their actual being. This is extraordinarily dangerous for many reasons, and could lead to serious mental issues later on in life. Additionally, the idea of injuring oneself at such a young age only to have it follow them throughout the rest of their lives is cruel, no matter what the medal count is at the end of the day.
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Cheung, S. Y., & Lo, C. (1996). Psychological profiles and stress management training for Hong Kong national gymnasts. Journal of the International Council for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Sport, and Dance, 32 (4), 61-64.
Caine, Dennis, Roy, Steven, Singer, Kenneth. The American Journal of Sports Medicine. Vol 20 Issue 3 pp. 290-298. April 23, 2016. web. March 20 2017.
Cheung, Jennifer. After the Dream Has Faded: Former Chinese Champion Gymnast's Life After Retirement. Forbes. August 13, 2012. Web. March 20, 2017.
Little Big Dreams. BBC HD. August 21, 2008. Film. March 20, 2017.