Ryan does for women's gymnastics and figure skating what Suzanne Gordon did for ballet a decade ago in Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet. Ryan, a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, strips away the graceful facade to expose the harsh, often destructive, training regimes to which elite female gymnasts and figure skaters are subjected. She argues that these sports are distorted by ""our cultural fixation on beauty and weight and youth"" and the drive to win at any cost. ""Skating was God,"" says one mother of two former athletes. ""That's what we prayed to: First Place."" Top athletes -- pressed into competition as young as age six and reaching their peak in their teens -- fall prey to a vicious cycle of eating disorders, exhaustion, stunted growth, injuries, burn-out -- and sometimes death. Ryan presents horrifying tales of their physical and mental abuse at the hands of leading coaches: Christy Henrich died at 22, unable to conquer her anorexia years after quitting gymnastics; 15-year-old Julissa Gomez died after landing head first on the horse during a difficult vault that her coach knew gave her trouble. Craving approval, the girls are victimized by the very people who claim to care most about them: coaches such as Bela Karolyi (trainer of Olympic gold medalists Nadia Comenici and Mary Lou Retton), who berated a girl after forcing her to compete with broken toes; sporting associations that turn a blind eye to abuse and lack power to enforce standards of treatment; judges who value image over accomplishment; and worst of all, parents who expect their children to bring them glory (one father decided his daughter would be a figure skater before she was even born). Ryan calls for government regulation as a means of bringing these abuses under control. Never again, after reading Ryan's book, will one be able to watch those tiny, lithe silhouettes -- whether on the ice or the balance beam -- without thinking of what they may have suffered to get there.