For a nation that takes inordinate pride in its sporting prowess and medal tallies, this week’s Human Rights Commission report into the culture of gymnastics in Australia is not easy reading. It reveals a litany of systemic problems involving bullying, fat shaming, harassment, assault and a widespread use of authoritarian coaching methods.
The revelations in Australia follow an outpouring of stories of abusive treatment from current and former gymnasts worldwide, triggered a year ago with the screening of a documentary on US gymnastic team doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual assault of 165 athletes.
A report into gymnastics in Australia has made for grim reading. Credit:Vince Caligiuri
In country after country, gymnasts have broken their silence over conduct that has left them with physical and mental scars well into adulthood.
Last year, a former Dutch coach of the national team admitted to using abuse and intimidation on young athletes in an effort to win medals. “I am deeply ashamed,” the coach said. “The behaviour I showed is in no way justifiable. I insisted on winning, at the expense of everything.”
In Britain, the governing body of gymnastics is facing a lawsuit from 17 former athletes, including three Olympians, who allege there was widespread physical and psychological abuse deployed by coaches on children as young as six in a bid win at all costs.
In New Zealand, an investigation by Stuff last year uncovered allegations of a culture that normalised emotional manipulation, fat shaming and athletes being forced to compete with serious injuries.
It’s now time for Australia’s gymnastic governing bodies to confront their ugly past.
In case after case, gymnasts have described in the report horrendous acts, including sexual and physical abuse, body shaming and being treated like “commodities”.
In a graphic example of the consequences of such treatment, The Age’s chief reporter Chip Le Grand this week spoke to Emily Little, an Olympian who only a few years ago was one of the best gymnasts in the country.
She told of being forced to present to a judge after landing on her head during a routine, despite not being able to move for a period of time and feeling an electric tingling in her fingers and toes. She was then examined by a doctor who, after suggesting she fly home to Perth to get treatment, finally agreed that she should go straight to hospital.
Upon arriving at The Alfred hospital, she was immediately put in a neck brace, and subsequently had to undergo two surgeries to repair a broken neck. She never returned to the sport.
After the commission’s report was released, Gymnastics Australia and the Australian Sports Commission apologised for the treatment of athletes in their care. While that is welcomed, it is the first step in rectifying such a dysfunctional and broken system.
A system that, it should not be forgotten, involves 231,000 registered participants, of whom nearly 80 per cent are female and 91 per cent are under the age of 12. In other words, this is mostly about young girls. With that in mind, this has to be one of the most shameful episodes in Australia’s sporting history.
The report has put forward a range of recommendations, including better complaints mechanisms, revamping the training of coaches, and improving resources related to body image and eating disorders. It also calls for all complaints to be independently investigated. These are all sensible steps that are essential to repairing the reputation of the sport.
But surely there is a broader discussion to be had. With the abuse of gymnasts so pervasive in so many countries, one must ask whether the myopic focus on Olympic medals needs to be abandoned as the sole measure of success. How can the pursuit of gold ever justify the actions that have brought so much harm to so many who participate.
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