On July 28, Simone Biles, one of the most prolific female gymnasts of all time, withdrew from the Olympic games. Shortly after the 24-year-old’s announcement, USA Gymnastics released a statement. It read: “After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games, in order to focus on her mental health.” The organization “wholeheartedly” supported her decision and applauded “her bravery in prioritizing her well-being.” Her courage, they insisted, “shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”
Whatever your thoughts on Biles’ decision, it was her own choice to make. With the weight of the country on her shoulders, one can only imagine the pressure she felt.
Mental health is an important issue, and it needs to be discussed. So, with that being said, spare a thought for the Chinese athletes competing in Tokyo. Although a number of these athletes are treated abysmally, unlike Biles, they cannot withdraw. They are little more than prisoners, subjected to cruel and unusual punishments on a regular basis.
The Chinese regime “nurtures” athletic talent in a particularly sadistic manner. In a very much old-school, Soviet-style approach, there is a monomaniacal obsession with winning medals. More specifically, an obsession with winning gold medals. In the regime’s eyes, silver and bronze medals are for losers. In China, where the notion of global dominance is constantly reinforced, there’s no room for second or third place. With an absolutist philosophy reigning supreme, there are winners and losers, and nothing in between. Nothing matters more than Olympic gold—not an individual’s health, be it mental or physical, and certainly not the health of their family members.
In 2012, as Business Insider reported, “parents of Olympic diver Wu Minxia had concealed her mother’s long battle with breast cancer for fear of disturbing her training.” Wu, who was 26-years-old at the time, “was also shielded from news of her grandparents’ deaths.” Her trainers and parents, however, “shrugged off the controversy” when she went on “to win both the synchronized and individual three-meter springboard events in London.” The message from the regime is as clear today as it was in 2012: Athletes are not to be distracted with “minor” concerns, even if these concerns include life-threatening illnesses and the death of a loved one.
In a rather sobering piece published by Reuters, Dr. Johannah Doecke, a professor of physical education at Indiana University-Purdue University, asks the following, “you wonder why the Chinese women are so successful?” It’s because they “are literally beaten into submission” by their coaches, most of whom are men. Dr. Doecke also happens to be a diving instructor and an elite one at that. In 2008–09, according to her profile, she mentored Chinese diver Chen Ni, helping her become IUPUI’s first First Team All-American. Dr. Doecke stressed the fact that, if athletes refuse to do what their coaches request of them, they are “chastised” and “slapped around.” The system is a “brutal” one.
Like Dr. Doecke, I have also witnessed the system firsthand; her descriptions are entirely accurate. Athletes are treated like farmyard animals. Working 6 days a week, 8-10 hours per day, many are separated from their families for months on end. Some are separated from their loved ones for years. Psychological support, which an increasing number of athletes require, is rarely, if ever, offered. Injuries are poorly treated, and sometimes never treated. I have a colleague who witnessed athletes with severe concussions continue training when they should have been in an emergency room.
The system, as Dr. Doecke warned, is brutal. Athletes are drip-fed steroids and painkillers; they have little, if any, access to education. Living in awful conditions, it is not unusual to see five or six athletes packed into a room meant to sleep two. For a number of years, these athletes, some of whom are as young as 10, fight through the injuries and the Sisyphean-like realities of their lives. A few go on to compete at a top level; the vast majority, though, are discarded like cheap plastic bags. With no education and chronic injuries, they are then released back into the world. Fend for yourself, they’re told. The vast majority cannot, because they lack the tools and finances to do so. This is the nature of competitive sports in China. Only the strongest survive; the rest, meanwhile, are cast aside. It’s The Hunger Games with Chinese characteristics.
In a rather compelling piece discussing Chinese female weightlifters, the journalist Hanna Beech talks about “a former national champion” who “was so impoverished after retirement that she ended up toiling in a public bathhouse.” Because of the “doping regimen forced upon her as a young athlete,” according to Beech, this poor woman ended up growing a beard. Remember, this is a woman who has won medals at an elite level. If this is the way the Chinese regime treats successful athletes, just imagine how the unsuccessful are treated.
This brings us back to Biles. Although her mental health may be fragile, at least she has access to top-class professionals. Biles, I am sure, will get the help that she needs. For Chinese athletes, however, many of whom would benefit from the support of mental health professionals, help will never come.
John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. His work has been published by the likes of The New York Post, Sydney Morning Herald, The American Conservative, National Review, The Public Discourse, and other respectable outlets. He’s also a columnist at Cointelegraph.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.