Picks and Pans Review: Little Girls in Pretty Boxes

updated 07/24/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1995 01:00AM

by Joan Ryan

Many a young girl dreams of becoming an Olympic gymnast, but the road to the gold can be downright dangerous, proposes Ryan in this expose of upper-level competitive gymnasties and figure skating. "What I found," she writes, "was a story about legal, even celebrated child abuse."

Ryan saw girls 13 and younger training 8 hours a day on a diet of little more than apples, laxatives and painkillers, falling into anorexia and bulimia in order to reach unreasonably low weights. She notes that the average female U.S. Olympic gymnast in 1992 was 16 and weighed 83 pounds, or 23 pounds less than her nearly-18-year-old counterparts in 1976. Death is not unknown to the sport. Despite the efforts of her parents and her coach to help her overcome an eating disorder, Christy Henrich, a favorite for the 1992 Games, died of multiple organ failure at 22. Girls also train with multiple stress fractures or worse. Julissa Gomez was working on her poor vaulting techniques with a sprained ankle. The next year at the World Sports Fair, the 16-year-old still hadn't mastered the maneuvers. She smashed into the vault forehead-first and snapped her neck, then died in 1991 after three years in a vegetative state.

Ryan blames the coaches, the fame-crazed parents and the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, which requires no training degrees to coach and makes no regular checks at studios. She tells a horrific tale of Bela Karolyi, who coached Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, exploding at a young girl who was eating a peach after a workout, calling her lazy and fat. That afternoon the whole team was punished with an extra two hours of training.

Ryan's coverage is limited—she spoke to only two dozen of the roughly 200 elite U.S. gymnasts—and her research is often based on anecdotal and secondary sources. Still, the book makes for fascinating reading, if only because it proves once again that perfection is always an illusion. (Double-day, $22.95)

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