An independent review into gymnastics in Australia says the sport has enabled a culture of physical, emotional and sexual abuse which many participants have described as “toxic”.
- Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said the report found “significant cultural challenges”
- It found current coaching practices and a “win at all costs” culture increased the risk of harm to athletes
- Gymnastics Australia has “unreservedly apologised” to anyone in the sport who has suffered abuse
The report, carried out by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), made 12 recommendations around five key findings, most of which detailed negative experiences by young gymnasts, particularly at the elite level.
Noting that the “athlete population in gymnastics is predominately young and female”, the report explored power imbalances between athletes and coaches, body-shaming and bullying, and a culture which it said helped “create an environment where abuse and mistreatment can thrive”.
In response, Gymnastics Australia said it “unreservedly apologises to all athletes and family members who have experienced any form of abuse participating in the sport”.
“While important work has been undertaken in recent years to improve policies, education and support mechanisms for our athletes and coaches across child safety and athlete wellbeing, there is clearly more to be done,” the governing body said in a statement.
“The Gymnastics Australia board and management acknowledge this work needs to be underpinned by transformational cultural change across all levels of gymnastics in Australia.”
The report from the AHRC did not investigate any specific allegations of abuse or misconduct.
But it found that:
- Current coaching practices created a risk of harm and abuse for athletes
- A “win at all costs” culture increased the risk, and led to athletes being silenced
- There was insufficient understanding of what constituted child abuse, and not enough focus on preventing it
- A focus on an “ideal body” resulted in the development of eating disorders among athletes, which often continued long after they left the sport
- Complaints of abuse from athletes were not adequately addressed by the sport’s governing bodies, and young gymnasts — most of them children — were not being protected
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins commended the “bravery and determination of all those who shared their experiences”, and said she hoped Gymnastics Australia would take up the report’s recommendations.
“The review found that there are significant cultural challenges within the sport of gymnastics in Australia, cutting across coaching practices, the health, safety and wellbeing of gymnasts, complaints and investigations, and governance,” Ms Jenkins said.
“For all gymnasts, and particularly the girls and young women who make up the majority of gymnasts in Australia, I urge the sport to work swiftly and collaboratively to implement the recommendations included in this report and ensure child safety is considered a core responsibility at all levels.”
At a press conference on Monday afternoon, Ms Jenkins said “the commission does not accept that breaching fundamental human rights is necessary for success in sport”.
“On the contrary, success is only possible where the human rights of athletes are respected and protected.”
Young girls exposed to perils of elite sport
Of the approximately 321,000 participants in gymnastics in Australia, 77 per cent are female and 91 per cent are under the age of 12.
In 2017, the average age of all participants was eight.
The commission conducted 47 interviews with 57 participants for the report.
The report found that “it is still widely accepted within the gymnastics community that a female gymnast reaches their peak in their pre-pubescent years”, meaning young girls are thrust into the world of elite sport before they are physically and emotionally prepared to handle it.
And while many of the people interviewed by the report spoke fondly of gymnastics at its local and club levels, the overwhelming impression was that the problems began once those elite pathways opened up.
“A lot of inappropriate and abusive behaviour was normalised in the gymnastics community,” one interviewee was quoted as saying.
“Minors were restricted from communicating with their parents for days or weeks at a time; strength and conditioning was frequently used as punishment; being yelled at was common and expressions of emotion were further ridiculed and punished; disordered eating was normalised as necessary to success in the sport; athletes were regularly made to train through and compete on injuries.”
The report found that the abuse and pressure experienced, particularly by young girls in gymnastics, led to them forming a “sense of hatred and rejection” towards the sport.
Physical and sexual abuse rife
Intense physical punishment was found to be common practice when gymnasts “did not want to perform a skill, made a mistake … or spoke back to the coaches”.
One case study recalled “being asked to complete strength exercises my body literally could not manage”, like completing a handstand against a wall for over two minutes. The athlete could not complete the task, but was forced to spend an entire three-hour session repeatedly attempting it.
Others reported being painfully stretched by coaches in order to increase flexibility, and said the rules were “if you cried, the stretching would last longer and it would be more painful”.
The report found athletes were “actively discouraged from reporting injuries’, and that painkillers and other medications were overused to keep gymnasts in competition.
Interviewed gymnasts also told the commission of “sexual misconduct and abuse that occurred during training sessions, in both public and hidden spaces”.
One told of her coach “displaying unwanted affection, such as thigh grabbing” and said often during stretching sessions “he would have an erection, which I would feel him pushing repetitively on my hips or back”.
Another said the gymnasts would develop “signs and signals” to avoid certain coaches and situations.
“We whispered things like, ‘He’s got wandering hands today, try and avoid him if you can,'” the interviewee said.
In many cases, parents were discouraged from watching training, which the report said helped create an environment in which abuse was more likely as “perpetrators seek out opportunities to abuse in environments where there is little supervision or oversight”.
Body-shaming of children leads to long-lasting eating disorders
Body issues were said to be of particular concern in the gymnastics community, with what the report called a “pixie-style” model of slight, pre-pubescent young girls seen to be the optimal body shape.
Tied to that, it said, was a “fear of puberty and its impacts on this ideal physique”, and some athletes reported being discriminated against by coaches because they had begun puberty earlier than some other girls.
Athletes said they were weighed on a daily basis, and would go to extreme lengths — like wrapping themselves in cling film in an attempt to sweat more — to meet the strict weight standards set by coaches and institutes.
‘The first time I was called fat at the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport], I was 11 years old and weighed 22 kilograms,” one participant said.
The report spoke to a number of women who continued to experience eating disorders and mental health problems as a result of the pressures put upon them as child gymnasts.
Gymnast Alliance welcomes findings in report
Julia Murcia, founder of the Gymnast Alliance Australia (GAA), said she and the organisation welcomed the report and its recommendations as a first step.
Ms Murcia, began training under the Western Australian Institute of Sport’s gymnastics program as a seven year old in 1990, and recently formed the GAA in an effort to raise awareness about abuse in gymnastics and encourage acknowledgement and accountability of past wrongs.
“We always knew that they [AHRC] weren’t going to be looking into specific allegations of abuse or naming specific people or organisations, but it is … a good report to start the conversation and get those bigger independent investigations going,” she said.
“And to make sure that gymnastics, and other sporting bodies, are really starting to look a bit more carefully around their child safety policies.”
Ms Murcia said the release of the report felt like they were finally being heard and said the GAA would be pushing for redress.
“What’s come out for me is that there are a lot of women, that it’s not in our nature, generally, to speak up and ask for help,” she said.
“But there’s a lot of people that need support, whether that’s psychological support, and also there’s physical aspects that we’re going to have to live with for the rest of our life.
“I would really like to see some kind of redress for the athletes that have been very severely affected by their time at WAIS.”
WAIS chief executive officer Steven Lawrence said in a statement the board had called a special meeting for the purpose of thoroughly reviewing the AHRC report and its recommendations and to consider how WAIS could best respond.