Suffering — 1/n
A version of this column first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on April 9, 2017.
If the happiness of humanity depended on the tears of one tortured child, would it be worth it, Ivan asks Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. Would most human beings accept the bargain of Omelas, the village of perfect happiness for everyone — except one human being — in Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas?
I admit to returning to these questions, overblown as they seem, in the wake of an ongoing sports tragedy. Workplace sexual abuse stories are now landing in public consciousness with the regular, dull thump of inevitability, but this one has been gathering steam for months, and its explosion may yet be heard around the world. In the midst of a trial in which he faces the accusations of over a hundred women, one of US gymnastics’s top doctors, Larry Nassar, has had his medical licence revoked on charges of molestation and abuse.
Nassar is accused of sexually abusing a staggering number of children under the guise of medical care. A recent police investigation discovered child pornography in his house; other victims, taking courage from the public complaints, might come forward. If proven, the breadth of the damage allegedly caused by this man will far exceed the 52 charges of child sexual abuse for which American football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted in 2011.
Gymnastics has fewer fans than American football — and perhaps, all else being equal, young girls have fewer effective defenders than young boys — so it may be unsurprising that the Nassar story is only slowly catching fire. But perhaps, too, a passivity surrounds the role of abuse, sexual and otherwise, in producing gymnasts. Like figure skating and classical dance, the sport seems meant for despots and puppets: brutes making flawless diamonds out of brilliant children.
It may be time, not only for gymnastics communities in America and elsewhere, but also for casual fans, to seriously ask what all this is for. In other countries, including India, athletic suffering is oddly depersonalised. In our grand narrative of sporting , India’s biggest enemies are poverty and an inefficient bureaucracy: indubitably true, but often short on the nuances of individual responsibility.
However, a small but significant body of journalism exists around the toxic culture of gymnastics in the US. This includes Joan Ryan’s 1995 book, Little Girls In Pretty Boxes, which cast a dark shadow over super-coach Bela Karolyi’s methods. A more recent memoir by former gymnast Jennifer Sey made brutal allegations about trainers encouraging anorexia and ignoring broken bones to push their protgées.
The Nassar story’s big tellers have been reporters at the Indianapolis Star, who have doggedly exposed complaints against the doctor as well as USA Gymnastics’ troubling attempts to cover up the crime for the last eight months.
Yet to many of us, the news seems seems far removed from the ticker-tape parades and viral Olympic videos. How can an industry of starvation diets, public humiliation, broken bones and chronic pain produce the likes of Simone Biles and McKayla Maroney?
Nassar’s alleged victims don’t just have faces and stories now: they have ages. They are ten; twelve; fourteen years old, unable to ask for help or process the magnitude of the violence inflicted on them. Now, there may be something in the argument that all systems that make hard demands of children — whether they’re gifted students, budding musicians or star athletes in training — are violent, and are sustained because of a traditional consensus that the joy of its fruition will eventually compensate both teacher and student.
The prodigy without a childhood is one of pop culture’s most beloved objects of pity and admiration. But what of it: carbon can’t be coaxed into becoming diamond, we permit ourselves to think. Pushy parents, power-hungry coaches and eager audiences — we all live with the burden of putting pressure on those too young to consent to it.
If those personal choices make it so easy for these demands to cross over into criminality, however, their legitimacy crumbles absolutely. It’s difficult not to see US Gymnastics’ cover-up attempts as a grave extension of the abuse in itself. It might be good to watch for, and recognise in ourselves the villagers of Omelas, happy to bask in the sunshine of great spectacle, unwilling to admit that it is built on some child’s deepest unhappiness.