Friday, September 2, 2011

Venus Williams: Bringing Up Designer Baby

Venus Williams had to withdraw from the U.S. Open due to recently-diagnosed Sjogren’s Syndrome. Big deal, if you’re not a tennis fan, and not earth-shattering even if you are. At 31, Venus’s glory days have been behind her for a while. She has played very little over the last few years, battling one injury after another and, some say, flagging interest in the game.

We feel bad for Venus, but she isn’t the Williams everyone’s interested in anyway. That’s Serena, fifteen months younger, seven major titles more decorated, and everyone’s pick to win a fourth Open this year.

Thanks to by Jayegirl99 for the photo.
Serena herself is just back from a series of debilitating injuries and illnesses, some life-threatening. In May, she was rushed to the hospital with a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in her lung) and a related hematoma in her stomach. Both of those were likely complications from a freak injury – she cut her foot at a bar, requiring two surgeries, which kept her out of last year’s U.S. Open.

Okay, so again, what’s the beef? Lots of people get blood clots, especially after surgery. “Prior surgery, air travel, prolonged sitting, birth control pills, obesity and pregnancy can predispose a patient to a blood clot in the leg that can travel to the lung,” a cardiovascular surgeon told People magazine in relation to Serena’s hospitalization.

It got me thinking, though. Two young women in the same family, legendary for their fitness, with a highly paid entourage helping them tweak their diets and exercise regimens, battling conditions that are fairly rare for people of their ages. Sjogren’s is an autoimmune disorder that, as sports viewers have heard numerous times over the last couple days, “strikes 4 million Americans annually, 90% of them women.” What the commentators haven’t mentioned is that the condition – a disorder in which “a person’s white blood cells attack their moisture-producing glands” – normally appears in women in their late 40s.

Bad luck? Maybe, but I also found this suggestion: “Elite athletes -- often perceived as the epitome of health and fitness -- may be more susceptible to common illness and are therefore proving useful in helping scientists understand more about the immune system…”

What the study tentatively suggests is that “[S]alivary proteins [proteins in saliva] such as lactoferrin and lysozyme act to prevent microbes from infecting the body and typically increase as the body fights off infection … An initial observational study comparing elite rowers with sedentary individuals over five months clearly showed that exercise was associated with a significant reduction in the concentration of lactoferrin. Theoretically, exercise is a stress on the body and leads to a greater susceptibility to illness. The decrease in salivary proteins, one of the body's first lines of defence against infection, may help explain this.’”

So basically, if I understand this correctly, the moistures that our glands secrete are filled with proteins that help us fight infection, but in athletes, some of these fighter instincts are suppressed. Now here’s what I could find about the causes of Sjogren’s Syndrome.

“Researchers think Sjogren's syndrome is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. … Scientists think that the trigger may be a viral or bacterial infection. It might work like this: A person who has a Sjogren's syndrome associated gene gets a viral infection.

The virus stimulates the immune system to act, but the gene alters the attack, sending fighter cells (lymphocytes) to the eye and mouth glands.

Once there, the lymphocytes attack healthy cells, causing the inflammation that damages the glands and keeps them from working properly.”

Once again, it seems to me, we are talking about secretions that are supposed to protect the body being altered in some way that prevents them from doing their jobs.

The health risks of girly sports like figure skating and gymnastics, where prepubescent girl athletes are encouraged if not forced to starve themselves in order to appear delicate and cute and then put enormous stress on their brittle bones, have been well documented – not that anything has been done to stop it.  (Though young girls are most susceptible to that type of abuse, notably because the biological changes of a normal puberty can completely change their balance and center of gravity and destroy their promising careers, it’s plenty damaging to males too. Two time Olympic pairs skating champion Sergei Grinkov died of a heart attack at 28, while Christopher Bowman, whose career was hindered in part by his resistance to “discipline”, died of an overdose at 40.) We all know that repeated concussions leave football players with a huge risk of dementia, sleep disorders and depression, and that boxing causes severe brain injuries, leading the British Medical Association to push for it to be banned.

But tennis? What can be more wholesome? It’s outdoors, it’s not one set of repetitive motions; it takes eye-hand coordination and speed and endurance and anticipation. You can be a “thinking” player like Martina Hingis or an ultraphysical one like Rafael Nadal, or a combination, which is what the Williams sisters have always been considered. Though there’s a lot of sexist looksism aimed at the women, and comments about how “fit” someone is and who should lose a few pounds, most of the players don’t appear anorexic or emaciated.

It could be that it’s not what the sport is that causes the most severe injury to a young person pushed into focusing on one thing before they are old enough to choose.

It’s hard to write something that might sound like an indictment of Richard Williams and Oracene Price. They’ve been dragged through the wringer by the tennis establishment and media, who’ve criticized everything from their coaching methods to the way they congratulated opponents’ parents to the way their daughters dressed. African Americans from Compton, with no formal tennis education, were not going to be welcomed into a bastion of white upper-class etiquette if they didn’t bow down to its received wisdom, and the Williams – parents and kids – did not. They weren’t Arthur Ashe or Althea Gibson. They weren’t grateful, they weren’t humble and they weren’t always gracious. They were just good. The girls had to prove over and over that they were smart and polite, while their every expression and utterance was scrutinized for evidence of race.

The story itself is oft-told. Richard Williams was watching television and saw Virginia Ruzici, a Romanian tennis star of the 70s, win a tournament and get a check for $40,000. He decided to have two more daughters and make them into tennis players. He taught himself and his wife to play, sought advice from videotapes, coaches and sports psychologists, and started his new daughters playing when they were three and four-and-a-half. The rest, as they say, is history.

I saw Venus in her first pro competition, which was here in Oakland. She won a round, maybe two, before losing to one of the best players of that period. She was a gangly, happy fifteen-year-old who jumped up and down when she won her first match, but when she lost she was disconsolate. It had, apparently, never occurred to her that she couldn’t be the best the minute she stepped on the court. A year and a half later, she made the finals of the U.S. Open, losing to Hingis. The next day, I happened to see her and her father on a talk show from New York. Her father said something like, “I would rather Venus run track, because she’s never lost a track meet.” He also at that time made a statement which would be quoted widely for years: “Venus is going to be great, but Serena will be better.”

I figured he was just trying to motivate his daughter, but I found his comments abusive. He needed to be building Venus up, not subtly putting her down. I’ve never completely trusted the rivalry between the sisters. I don’t doubt for a second that they’re as loving and close as they appear and claim to be. They’ve had ample time, by now, to go their own ways if they wanted and they haven’t. They continue to live together, play doubles together, root for one another, talk each other up. Serena said today when asked about her sister’s illness, “I can’t put into words how much I care about Venus.”

Venus and Serena seem to have good lives. They’re fabulously wealthy, wildly famous, beautiful, educated. But they are also designer babies. We question the morality of having kids to create a genetic match for a family member who needs a transplant, but what about the morality of having kids to raise their families out of poverty? The Williamses are far from the only ones. Martina Hingis’s mother named her for Martina Navratilova because she was going to be a tennis champion. Tiger Woods’ father put a golf club in his hand before his first birthday. In the book Bounce, Matthew Syed tells the story of Laszlo Polgar, who in the late sixties and early seventies had three daughters to test a theory about chess. Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu sued her parents for emancipation when she was 17, after her father squandered $2 million she had earned from competition and endorsements. Danica Patrick’s father has managed her career since she started racing go-karts at ten years old.

In her autobiography, Serena insists no one ever made her play tennis. She wanted to do it, she says, because that’s what you did in her family. I’m sure that’s true. When you’re a little kid, you want nothing more than to do what your older siblings do. Despite all the hype these days about ADD and ADHD, it’s not hard to get kids to practice something over and over and over. In my experience, kids will gladly spend three hours pumping coins into broken video games, sliding down a slide or running back and forth between two trees.

But there’s a difference between the kid who decides to run back and forth for an hour, and a kid who does it because her parents set up starting blocks and a finish line. Even more difference if the parent or an older sibling times the child with a stopwatch.

In my family, it was religious education that was important, so I wanted to be a star in that arena. My sister learned to read Torah – that is, learned to read the notations for chanting the weekly portions, and to read the archaic Hebrew without vowels – at age 10, so I learned at 9. When my oldest sister decided she wasn’t going to ride in cars on the Sabbath – a custom my family, which was Conservative, did not practice – I did too. No one forced me. At the time, I thought religion was important to me. As an adult, I somewhat reluctantly concluded that it isn’t.

I wasn’t hurt by my religious education, and I don’t regret it. But I also wasn’t supporting my family with it.

Ordinary kids in this country aren’t allowed to work until they’re 16, and then their hours are sharply regulated. The days when tweeners went out to pick strawberries or work in textile factories because their little fingers were more nimble than the grownups’ are supposed to be over – though Michelle Bachman and others want to bring them back (and plenty of immigrant kids work in hidden sweatshops). Yet child athletes can get commercial endorsements and financial backing, even in highly dangerous sports like motocross and snowboarding. On a plane a few years ago, I sat next to a 12-year-old kid who was returning from a motocross competition. He showed me a picture of himself in a sports magazine. He couldn’t even get a driver’s license, but he was being sponsored to jump motorcycles over concrete walls. He’d already had two surgeries.

Richard Williams, along with Earl Woods and Laszlo Polgar and the rest, prove that it’s possible to create a champion. What none of them have proven is that that creates a happy, healthy human being. What Venus seems passionate about is clothing design. It’s the career she chose for herself; tennis was chosen for her before she was born. Maybe it’s time for the designer baby to just be a designer.

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