Is This Child Labour?

Or, what price are we ready to accept for entertainment.

ice skating child

Our societies, our self-styled spokespeople, ourselves claim to care more and more about individual mental welfare. We are ready to unfurl the flags and go up the trench against physical exploitation. And then every 2 years, we watch the global sports elite compete. And every two years, similar abuse scandals pop up. Again, and again.

And yet again in 2022 in the Winter Olympics. This time around, a Russian star skater, 15 years old,  who tested positive to doping, failed badly in her chase for gold. Her coach asked her, coming off the ice, “Why did you stop fighting?”. Cue indignant speeches, finger wagging and high moral opinion pieces.

The fact is that we do know the price paid for these particular performances, for the Olympics. The fact is that we know who pays it, whether willingly, semi-willingly or reluctantly. We turn a blind eye and wrap all of this in grandiose values, images and slogans. The fact is that we all glamorise these athletes into global heroes for a day.

We know the price. Yet we don’t pay for it, nor do we refuse it

Let’s be precise. I understand that both gymnastics and ice skating have huge following. That these disciplines are beautiful to watch, extremely technical as well as artistically significant. This post is not to advocate their cancellation. They are however the epitome of the place of entertainment in our societies, and as such, symptomatic of our own attitudes.

Each Winter Olympics, one of the biggest fan favourite sports is figure skating(*). So it is not like some cryptic news. This year, we had as per usual success, failure, drama and tears. We had the perfect cast and narrative: the promising young girl gone bad who started competitions at 12 years old, the evil witch/stepmother, and the nasty sisters. Oh, and the appropriate indignation of the president of the Olympic Committee. In a word, as scripted as EastEnders. Not even the script sounds very original indeed.

We dissect teenage athletes live for our entertainment

We had in the early 1980s Nadia Comaneci, later Tonya Harding, and nearly all federations were rocked by any one scandal. From the US gymnastics training program, to France skating federation… Less than 6 months ago, we all commiserated with Simone Biles, US gymnast champion, on the psychological cost of these competitions.

No, nothing more shocking that could not be swiped by some huffing indignation. Except that we talk here about 15-17 years old girls, teenagers really, which we dissect live for our entertainment. Possibly many years back, you could have argued ignorance. Not today, not with the barrage of revelations, documentaries, op-eds, and supposed sports instances.

Simple indignation, moral high ground and righteous outrage won’t do. The real question here is that we need to accept the price to be paid – moral, personal or social – for what seems very much like a vampiric entertainment. Is this better or worse on an individual level than watching gladiatorial combat between trained fighters? Is that worse or better than MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)? I would argue that it is at least on par.

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Let’s review and propose alternatives to the damage – physical and psychological – and to the glossing through mottos and slogans. We actually could remedy each and every one of these. But then, what would be the athletic outcome?  Let’s start with common sense solutions. Then let’s decide on the choices we have.

We are outraged at 12-year-olds in mines. We cheer at a 12-year-old in a national competitive ice rink

There is an actual physical price to these performances. What we get to see is the exceptional individuals that went through a gruelling selection efforts. The percentage of individuals ending up on the ice representing a country are in the single digit figures, if that. I could not find the exact statistics.

From there on, how to source the best? Sounds like retro engineering is what is needed here. You can retro plan for a particular Olympic date. Anticipate the technical progress and the physical support needed. Then mould the body to the needs from a number of candidates. Only a few will ultimately qualify. We will not hear about the others. As it is worth it. It is feasible. I will not enter into the gory details of how the physical shapes are reached. This information is largely available online or in documentaries. So, we can “engineer” the perfect athlete potential, if we accept that a lot will anyway be left by the side. Again, remember that the selection process is not some ethereal reality. Valieva of Russia won her first nationally when 12 years old. Liu, USA, at 13 years old.

Competing at national level at 12 or 13 means simply that you have started training around 6. And if or when they can’t anymore, well the medication is there. Both Valieva and Biles have been suspected of doping.

National level competition at 12, means to start training at the age of 4-6

You could argue that it seems OK because they are arguably willing, enthusiastic even. And undeniably they get the job done!

Yet, my point of contention is that these arguments are very much the very same ones used against 19th century child labour limitations. Back then, little girls were seen as critical to the operation of weaving machines due to their smaller size. Little boys could wriggle easier into coal mines. Both went back home with some money that were much needed by their households. When we read about this, we disbelieved some of the stories. Until they were proven by pictures. Compare these with the medal stands during the Olympics.

child labour
Child labor in the United States, 1909 – Wiki Commons

We do have a standing solution: the Labour Laws. They exist around the world. We just need to switch the definition of the activities to cover sports training in competitive environments. You cannot work before 14 years of age in most of the countries. Why should you be subjected to training hours that goes far beyond your usual 9 to 5? In most countries, until 16, it is on very restricted working hours and in very specific conditions.

Physical price seems easily solved: limit age of entry in competitions, limit training hours, validate a maximum of hours per week. Like you would do in any straining job.

How to motivate a toddler?

We marvel at the pressure to perform on a global stage at 15 year, when most of us have stage fright in one form or the other. This is not simply about a 10 year old Christmas play, your 16y high school play, your PhD defence/soutenance or even a TED Talk recording in front of a selected audience. We expect these young athletes to perform literally feats that never occurred before in recorded human history. At 15 years old.

Like physical engineering, it requires some “mental build-up”. Sometimes it fails, and we tend to accept that. But, remember, these kids often start at 4-6 years old. How do you motivate essentially a toddler? It must start with some shiny dresses, but soon the need to perform must kick in. How do you get the best psychological performance from a child? Mr. Williams, of the Serena and Venus fame, has found a way. He seems however so much the exception that he had an entire movie dedicated to him. Some seem to handle it quite well, like the latest crop of 13-year-old skate boarders from the Summer Olympics. Then again, this is a “fun” event. We cannot yet compare it with the juggernaut investment in gymnastics.

In the meantime, we have heard about many techniques to prepare the young minds to competition. But, since the Karolyi scandal, nothing much has changed.

We wrap ourselves in virtues, mottos and slogans

Can it change?

For maximum efficiency, you are building competitors who will not be able to drink or drive before 6 years. Yet, they will represent their nation globally, and be scrutinise by press, TVs, social media. To cover for it, we see a lot of virtue signalling by the IOC. Yet, to be honest, it seems rather tone deaf. Probably as the IOC can’t well change the very nature of the spectacle it sells.

Competition is entertainment, except there is a loser.

How do we cope currently with this? Well, we paint it up in the “Biggest Show on Earth”, with the biggest arenas, sponsorships and ideals. We wrap ourselves in virtues, mottos and slogans. And it gets the job done.

Everyone on Earth knows the sentence “The most important thing [..] is to take part”. At least, that’s what I have been told since many years. The actual sentence is rather… different. Actually the original sentence is: “The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.” So then, it’s not about taking part. It is about fighting for it. Similarly, the latest slogan is “faster-higher-stronger-together”. Hmm, the last word was attached in 2021. Formerly, it was just “faster-higher-stronger”.

The Olympics, an entertainment business

Whenever you want to add a bit of depth to the Olympics, you go back to its Greek roots. In the mythical lost past, it is said that the states would stop fighting among themselves to allow the games to get on undisturbed. That legend is as much part of the Olympics Mystique as anything else. Yet, one cannot help but guess that it had more practical reasons. Probably no-one would like to miss a good game. We like to think otherwise. Hence, every 2 years there is a solemn declaration to all for a suspension of conflicts. Even one duly voted by the UN General Assembly. Since 1993. You can’t help but wonder how efficient it is,…. but hey.

So, what are we actually doing? What is the IOC doing? Actually, it seems like they are basically managing an entertainment event with specific performers. A business anyway. How would you know? Well, you have the house of IOC. This type of “house” is something I have seen many times over the past 10 years – a sure sign that consultants were paid. The one thing you can say though, is that in none of the “pillars” of the house of IOC do you have actually sports. You do have all the virtue signalling you many wish for (even friendship is mentioned).

Ultimately, when it comes to actual action, it remains pretty much an outrage place holder…

So no, it seems more like we are trying to buy ourselves out of the tough questions, as we still enjoy the show too much. And it gets better every time! After all, the latest crop of events continue the trend.

If we want the performance to continue in the current conditions, we have to accept the price to pay

Would the performance be less impressive with more serious guidelines? Maybe. Cristiano Ronaldo still plays top-shelf football at the age of 36… So, maybe like Formula One, it is a question to frame the performance within laws to protect the athletes?

We would all have to accept the price. It cannot be outsourced to any agency.

I do not have the best solution. I just know that it is not enough to be outraged. Again. Whether on small or large issues, small or large choices, there is always a price to pay. This is not about guilt, or sin, or any moral judgement. It is the material impossibility to have it both ways at the same time.

This triggered the next research topic I am working on.

Talk to you all soon.

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(*) That is, apart from the studies in which the most watched winter sports in France and Africa is… curling. Yeah, nah, me neither.

Some additional interesting sources:
Records 2008
Records 2018

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