The Olympics are a celebration of human excellence and the goodness of the body. The athletes run faster, leap higher and land more gracefully than seems possible. At their best, they unite their natural talents with hard work and discipline, to explore the limits of what is possible to do with the gift of a human body. But, more and more, sports are pushing athletes beyond those limits so that the Olympics become a chronicle of how to destroy a body, not celebrate it.
In the Winter Olympics in Beijing, some divisions have had to ban maneuvers to save athletes’ lives. Ski aerials (newly expanded to include a mixed team event in 2022) see skiers launch themselves 50 feet into the air, flipping and twisting before attempting to land on their feet. The sport’s governing body has set a ceiling of three flips per flight, fearing that aiming for more would result in serious injuries or deaths. At this “safe” level of competition, it is unremarkable for athletes to land so hard that they cough up blood.
In skeleton, bobsled and luge, the athletes may suffer brain damage from the violence of crashes and the microconcussions of rattling rides over the ice at up to 90 miles an hour. The sport is premised on accumulating damage to its athletes, as surely as football is.
In figure skating, one of the most popular sports in the Winter Olympics, the danger is better hidden, but still present. This year’s competition has seen historic accomplishments; for example, 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva was the first woman to successfully land a quad jump (a jump with four rotations) in Olympic competition. Moments after landing the jump during her free skate in the team competition, she landed the second ever successful Olympic quad in the same routine. Skaters had attempted the quad in the 1992 and 2006 Winter Olympics, without successfully completing them in competition.
Before the medals could be awarded, however, Valieva reportedly tested positive for a banned drug, leaving her medal and the legitimacy of her quads under a shadow. But before the test result came to light, there was already reason to worry that Valieva’s talent had been warped by a training regime that enhances performance at the cost of degrading the body.
Valieva and all the Russian women skaters train with Eteri Tutberidze, a coach whose athletes land impressive jumps and then vanish from the sport around age 17 or 18. It’s been reported that several of her athletes have developed eating disorders, partially as a result of a training regime that includes daily weigh-ins, diets of “powdered nutrients” and the pressure to keep up with younger and lighter competitors.
At the 2018 Olympics, Alina Zagitova, another 15-year-old Russian skater, took home the gold medal, but a year later she knew she was already used up, unable to stay competitive with the younger skaters also trained by Tutberidze. In order to keep pace and land quads, she said, “I will also need to lose some weight, something like 3kg, to decrease the risk of injuries.”
Quads don’t work for older skaters. The physics get hard once a skater is past puberty and begins to develop a woman’s body. Restrictive eating can forestall puberty and growth, but this strategy is abuse of the body, not celebration of its potential. Pushing a child’s body to the limits results in serious injuries that send them into retirement before they’re out of their teens.
Sustainable strength and excellence is found in sports where the athletes are able to compete for years, rather than just a narrow window of a few years before their bodies give out. The Paralympics hew closer to this model, celebrating a range of bodies and excellences. One highlight of the Summer Paralympics is goalball — the only sport developed specifically for disabled athletes, rather than adapted from an existing sport.
Blind athletes try to score goals with a belled ball, listening for its position and scrambling to defend their goal. The sport begins with the premise that there is a particular kind of athletic excellence that belongs to blind competitors. It was initially developed in 1946 as rehabilitation for World War II veterans who had lost their sight. While other Olympic sports destroy the healthy body, goalball began with a visual handicap and discovered what kind of strength can emerge from this wounded body.
More and more, the Olympics are a boondoggle for the host country, with massive buildings left to decay when the competition has passed. Athletes are too often treated as similarly disposable. A sport that treats them as something to be used up and discarded between competition cycles is a sport that falls short of what the Olympics should be. Abusive coaches should be banned from their sports, and intrinsically compromised events should be dropped or altered. Celebrating human excellence means not losing sight of the humans performing the feats.
Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of “Arriving at Amen” and “Building the Benedict Option.” She runs the substack Other Feminisms, focused on the dignity of interdependence.