‘Little Girls In Pretty Boxes: The Making And Breaking Of Elite Gymnasts And Figure Skaters’ by Joan Ryan (1996)

My first kid is due to be born in 10 weeks time.  Amid the busyness of getting the house ready, buying all the supplies and taking anti-natal classes, I’ve thinking a lot about sharing my love of sport, and of sports books of course, with my kid.

Sport was such a big part of my childhood and so many of friendships and memories are tied up with playing football in particular.   I want to expose them to any many sports and opportunities as I can and hope they find something that excites them as much as schoolboy soccer did for me.

We (and by we, I mean my wife) decided that we wouldn’t find out the sex of our kid in advance.  However, as I daydream about the future, I find myself naturally thinking about playing sport with my son, cheering or coaching his teams.  My brain keeps making the connection of sport with a boy – despite the obvious fact that I shouldn’t be treating a daughter any differently when it comes to exposing them sport.

Recognising my own instinctive bias, I’ve wanted to read more about women’s and girl’s sport.  I’ve tried to take more interest in women’s sport – and it’s been a bumper year for Irish women and historic sporting achievements – and to imagine bringing my daughter to play football and watch football – both men’s and women’s.

It was in this frame of mind that I approached Little Girls In Pretty Boxes, a book that often appears on list of greatest ever sports books.  The book is a detailed behind the scenes look at the world of elite female gymnastics and ice skating.   It is the story of the power of dreams and ambition – and how these forces can lead parents to overlook abusive or damaging behaviour by coaches, themselves and the girls they should be protecting.

The book tells the stories of many well known and less known gymnasts and skaters, including Nancy Kerrigan, Shannon Miller, Kim Zmeskal, and Betty Okino.  For every success story, the book points to many more tragic stories.  It also focuses heavily on the brutal coaching regime of Bela Karolyi.

Ryan paints a shocking picture of young girls dedicating their whole lives and risking their physical and mental health for the slim chance of glory at the Olympics.  Ryan interviewed dozens of athletes, family, and coaches.  Much of the comments from parents whose kids have since retired are full of regret, shame and remorse while some only regret the outcome (failure) and not the process they imposed on their child.

At its heart, the book calls for reflection on the merits of a win at all costs mentally.  It asks readers to reflect on the physical and mental price paid by countless girls and young women.   Personally, I was shocked at the toll the sport had on the elite competitors – delaying growth, permanent injuries and serious eating disorders seemed to have been normal, almost expected, side-effects of their training.

The book is full of villains – coaches, parents and federations who failed totally in thier duty of care.  One thing that emerges clearly however  is the sheer bravery of those girls who make it anywhere near elite level.  The commitment, dedication and effort needed is truly remarkable.

Written over 20 years ago, the book seems sadly still relevant today.  A quick online search reveals countless stories suggesting little has changed.  The heart-breaking testimonies that led to conviction of Larry Nassar for horrific offences against young gymnasts paint a picture even more gruesome than the one portrayed by Ryan in the book.

As a soon to be parent, the book stands out to me as a warning not to live vicariously through your child and to always remember that life is for living, not for ‘winning’. I want my kid to love sport but, in the unlikely event they show much more talent than I have, I’ll be sure to never push them to achieve my dreams rather than let them figure out their own.

After reading this, I found myself instinctively picking up Friday Night Lights for a reread (blog post coming).  Little Girls In Pretty Boxes is every bit as powerful, compelling and moving as that Texas football classic.

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‘Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women’ by Roseanne Montillo (2017)

Fire on the Track tells the story of Betty Robinson, the first ever women’s gold medalist athletics at the Olympic games, and some of her fellow pioneering female Olympians.  Robinson won gold in the 100m sprint in Amsterdam in 1928 at the age of just 16, in only her 3rd ever race at the distance, and 4th race at any distance.

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The first women participated in the Olympic games in Paris in 1900, and even then they were only allowed to participate in “safe” events like lawn tennis and golf. The 1928 games was the first Olympics that women were allowed to compete in the track and field events. Many feared that women participating in track and field events would either deem them unattractive to men or actually turn them into men so its inclusion was still heavily disputed among officials.  Coverage of the events, especially the 800m, focussed heavily on the toil the race took on the athletes rather than the race itself.

As well as Betty Robinson there are several other prevalent female track athletes covered. These names included: Polish-American Stella Walsh, Texan Babe Didrikson, the first African-American female to compete in the Olympics, Tidye Pickett, and young Helen Stephens.

Overall I found the story quite interesting but the writing style wasn’t my cup of tea.  It was written with an overly novelistic flair and at times I felt the author presumed too much as to what the inner thoughts of the various protagonists were.  It felt like a cross between biography and novel which always feels problematic to me as it blurs the line between fact and possible fiction.  If you approach the book as a fictionalized retelling it might be more palatable.  While the story was gripping, I ultimately struggled to finish it due to the style.

As I read this book, it really struck me how few of the sports books I’ve read relate to women’s sport.  I’m struggling to think of any others that I have actually read – and I’ve read a lot!  I’ve read great sports books written by women – none more so than Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand – and books about how sportsmen mistreat women – like the very interesting Night Games by Anna Krien – but very little about women athletes or players.   It’s been an interesting realisation for me and I’d appreciate any recommendations for good sports books about women athletes that I have overlooked.

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