Just how young is too young?

  • Letters
  • Friday, 22 Aug 2008

As the Beijing Olympics winds down, sports apparel companies are looking forward to a good year in sales but sometimes the profits come at a high price.

When the media named 13-year-old British diving prodigy Tom Daley as that country’s youngest-ever male Olympian, it drew both admiration and controversy.

The reports painted a glowing picture of Tom after he qualified for the British diving team for this year’s Olympic Games.

It was then thought that, at 14 years and 81 days during the Beijing Games, the Plymouth schoolboy would be the youngest British male Olympian.

But then a regional newspaper in Britain, Oxford Mail, reported that the honour belonged to 60-year-old grandfather Kenneth Lester.

He was just 13 when he took part in the Rome Olympics in 1960 as cox for a pairs rowing event. However, a typing error prevented Lester from taking that honour because his year of birth in the entry form was typed in as 1937 instead of 1947.

Despite the controversy and the high hopes placed on Tom in synchronised diving, he and partner Blake Aldridge only finished eighth in the 10m platform event.

British tabloid, The Sun, even reported a bust up between Tom and Blake at Beijing’s Water Cube, with the older diver claiming that Tom was more keen to call his mother on the cellphone than concentrate on their performance.

Lester did no better in Rome 48 years earlier; he and his team were knocked out in the preliminary stages.

The honour of the youngest ever Olympian belongs to British skater Cecilia Colledge, who was 11 years and 3 months old when she competed for Britain in the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in the United States.

She went on to win a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics in Germany and the world championship the following year.

American gymnast Shawn Johnson is just 16, and has already won a gold and a silver at this year's Olympics. She is the darling of the United States and even has her own website (www.shawnjohnson.net).

Among her non-gymnastic achievements listed on her website:

> She has appeared on numerous TV shows and news programmes, including The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Today Show, and was ABC’s Person of the Week.

> She has also been featured in a number of magazines, including Teen Vogue and Vanity Fair.

> In Iowa, Oct 17 was deemed “Shawn Johnson Day” by Governor Chet Culver, and in early July a bronze statue was dedicated to her at the Iowa Hall of Pride.

Her website also states that Shawn trains 20-25 hours a week and goes to public high school, where she is on the “A” Honour Roll.

Another interesting thing about her website is that her 10 commercial sponsors are also listed. They are Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Adidas, Hy-Vee, Oroweat, GK Elite Sportswear, Willis Auto Campus, Ortega, Proctor & Gamble and Longines.

Not bad for a 16-year-old superstar. She is blonde and pretty, which probably explains her commercial success as well.

Closer to home, Malaysia’s youngest representative is diver Bryan Nickson, from Sarawak, who was 14 years old when he took part in the Athens Olympics.

He was chosen as the flag bearer for the opening ceremony. This drew a lot of international attention.

This year, fellow Sarawakian diver Pandelela Rinong, at the age of 15, is the country’s youngest athlete at the Olympics.

However, the two Sarawakian’s efforts are more like Tom’s rather than Shawn’s.

Despite their age, all these young athletes are no part-timers, unlike in Lester’s time when sport was a matter of national pride.

If Bryan or Pandelela had won gold, our Government would have rewarded them with RM1mil. Age would not matter.

I am sure that these two kids are just like their British counterpart Tom, spending more time practising rather than at schoolwork. I am sure that it’s the same with American Shawn, despite all the PR notes in her website saying otherwise.

All these bring me to the point, these kids are PROFESSIONAL athletes, and they work very hard to be one.

None would begrudge them their commercial and sporting success. In fact, many parents wish their children could emulate them.

Commercial companies like Adidas and Nike also do not hesitate to reward these athletes with handsome sponsorships regardless of their age. In some way, these companies love them for their age.

Then, will someone explain to me why are they making such a big fuss about underage workers at factories which manufacture their products in Asia?

All contract manufacturers must adhere to their no child labour policy, and those under 18 are considered children.

Recently, a local apparel manufacturer got in trouble with Nike over its treatment of foreign workers at its plants in Malaysia.

Nike accused the company of also hiring underage workers.

Another OEM manufacturer told me that he has 14 factories here and in China producing T-shirts for these American sports companies and the rules are very strict about hiring youngsters.

He bemoaned that his principals ignore Asian values and culture regarding working youngsters.

“They are depriving those who drop out of school at Form 3 a chance to earn a living,” he complained.

I agree with this friend of mine because, unlike in the Western countries, where their teenaged dropouts can resort to selling drugs, ours would like to work at legal jobs.

Maybe working at the age of 15 seems a bit young, but the number who drop out of school of their own choosing is quite substantial.

It is in the tens of thousands every year.

How about those who finish their Form 5 and seek employment while awaiting their public examination results?

Are they not being deprived of their right to make a living? Why are teenagers not allowed to have their own human rights? Do they not have a right to choose?

If Adidas and Nike do not hesitate to sponsor professional athletes like Shawn, then why do they not allow teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 to work at their contract factories? Why not?

Deputy executive editor Wong Sai Wan does not believe in exploitation of the young but believes that the young can also make sound decisions.

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