There is a culture of fear permeating our whole sport and it has to stop
➤ ‘Athlete A’ documentary and gymnast alliance hashtag have opened a positive conversation about abuse in gymnastics
Watching documentary there were moments that felt far too close to home for many gymnasts I know here in the UK. The film not only champions the courageous survivors who experienced devastating treatment at the hands of Larry Nassar, but also demonstrates the shocking culture within USA Gymnastics that allowed it to happen – where athlete voices were silenced and results were given more importance than individuals’ well-being.
While, thankfully, I have not heard of any sexual abuse cases here, there is a culture of abuse and fear that permeates the whole sport, not just in the US. Having experienced many years competing in gymnastics, and representing Great Britain at the London Olympics, I know that culture exists. It is not the whole sport or every coach, but there has definitely been a normalised level of emotional abuse, sometimes progressing to physical abuse, which needs to stop.
After seeing Athlete A, I was having conversations with former team-mates and we wanted to do something to respond to it. I drafted a written statement and suggested it would be powerful if we all posted it together – to show that gymnasts are all united against this abuse. Olympian Lisa Mason then came up with the hashtag “gymnast alliance” and we posted it last Monday. The amount of attention that got led to athletes speaking out on television and even a formal independent review being announced by British Gymnastics yesterday, so it has opened up the conversation, which is really positive.
In the past week, I have read a lot of people saying that they reported a coach who is still coaching now. That is really concerning to hear, because the standards British Gymnastics has set in place are meaningless if people are not being held accountable to those standards.
Some think this is all in the past, as those speaking up now experienced this five or more years ago. But I know for a fact there are current coaches and gymnasts who were afraid to post our message of support because they do not want to impact their career. Obviously there is still a culture of fear.
There are three main types of abuse, based on what I have seen and heard. A big one is around body image and weight-shaming, including weighing at too young an age – even seven years old. Poor performance is immediately attributed to weight and so many people say their coach would scream words to the effect of “What did you eat yesterday?” if they did something wrong in training.
Then there is physical abuse, like pushing gymnasts down into splits when they are not ready for it, smacking gymnasts’ legs, or pinching gymnasts to get them to focus.
Last, there is emotional abuse – bullying and shouting abuse. Gymnasts feel so afraid that they are getting injured and not speaking up, or worse, being told they are just “melodramatic” or making up their injuries.
A lot of gymnasts have had to have counselling, and some say they never would return to their old gymnastics clubs. This culture of mistreatment has been going on for 20 years or more – why has it been allowed for so long?
Two key things need to be solved right away: reporting and education. British Gymnastics says it has an integrity unit, but from what others are saying, evidently the reporting system has not worked. Its independent investigation is welcome progress.
Then education as a whole needs to happen. BG has a positive coaching module that is mandatory for all coaches, but from what I can tell it is not enough. It needs to be recurring and more widespread.
Ultimately, we need to be proactive in maintaining the right kind of culture, rather than reactive in fixing various issues when they crop up.
It is heartbreaking that so many gymnasts are so unhappy about their experiences, because the sport is amazing and it can absolutely be done right – these coaching methods are not necessary for good results. I was a college gymnast at UCLA and the culture there is basically run on high fives – it is so positive and holistic, and puts the athlete’s voice in the centre of the conversation.
I am so glad the conversation has been sparked since Athlete A and since our #gymnastalliance post. The more we talk, the more we can make sure every gymnast is safe and protected – and happy.
In competition: Jennifer Pinches at London 2012 and with the Duchess of Cambridge (top)