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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Gymnastics - By Jen­nifer Pinches Bri­tish olympic gym­nast

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)

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