It was a question of when, not if. Sometimes there needs to be a catalyst, and I believe the trial and conviction of disgraced former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, jailed for the rest of his life for his decades of heinous sexual abuse against young American athletes proved to be just that.
Hundreds of girls and young women who had previously had no voice, found theirs. Internal wounds of trauma, rage and shame wrestled with for years; poured out as one by one their courage roared into life. One by one, by one, and a movement gathered momentum, ensuring Larry Nassar will rightly never see freedom again, the movement then set it’s sights on systemic abuse at the elite levels of USA gymnastics which had enabled this predator to hide in plain sight, the complete failure of USA gymnastics to protect is athletes, and to put success in the form of Olympic medals above everything including the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of its athletes.
From this then came ‘Athlete A’, the documentary which made the world sit up and take notice. Trending world wide, featured extensively in British media, gymnasts had a voice, abuse in gymnastics had a voice.
Finally seen, finally heard, finally taken seriously.
And anyone thinking that this was solely an American problem was gravely mistaken. Emboldened by the consequences for those involved following the USA scandal, gymnasts across the world have begun to speak out. Over just this last week I have seen posts from Germany, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, and of course Great Britain. Courage, a trait so highly praised in elite gymnastics, that saw these athletes reach the peak of their sport, turned in to the courage to speak out, to tell stories, long hidden, stories you should never have to hear from an adult, let alone a child.
In Britain it started on the 29th of June, and it looked like this:
Across social media, a show of solidarity, gymnasts, then coaches and clubs voicing their support for the survivors of Larry Nassar, and expressing their position as advocates for positive, healthy experiences for all those involved in gymnastics.
Then the gymnasts began to speak. Some expected, really only a question of when not if, some more surprising than others, but all with a raw pain, openness, and honestly that deserves all of our attention. Since then, what can only be described as a tsunami of personal stories flooding the internet, with gymnasts of both sexes, across all disciplines starting to speak out. Stories of physical, mental, and emotional abuse from those as young as seven years old. National media and news channels picked up the story, gymnasts were interviewed both on the television and for the press, including multiple British senior Champion and 2000 Olympian Lisa Mason, 2012 Olympian Jennifer Pinches, and 2014 British and European Junior Champion Catherine Lyons. In trying to decide how best to cover this here, I know that I cannot possibly cover every story and do it justice, these are also the gymnast’s stories to tell, for which I would direct you to the #gymnastalliance hashtag on social media. You may well be shocked if this a revelation to you, but for me, they deserve to be seen and heard.
What I want to talk about more in this post, is how this happened, and how it has been allowed to continue for so long. I sat last week reading these stories, and I thought to myself, I was lucky, I was lucky to be in a club where I wasn’t abused. Then I considered what I had just said to myself, that as a child and adolescent whose parents paid for me to train for roughly 28 hours a week, drove and hour and a half round trip six days a week, I was lucky that abuse didn’t come as part of the package. Absurd, no-one is lucky not to be abused.
It is an uncomfortable truth that if you are an adult, children are incredibly easy to manipulate. With eight year olds on the elite path often already training five days a week as well as attending school, the child will often see the coach more than their parents do all whilst going through critical developmental stages. School, gym, bed, school, gym, bed, and repeat, repeat, repeat. In a heathy environment this can be hugely enriching in terms of developing myriad qualities they can take into adult life, as well as forming bonds with coaches and teammates that feel like a second family. We all know that there are unhealthy dysfunctional families though, and if children are bullied, or abused in any way, their natural instant is to blame themselves. It is an innate survival skill to avoid being abandoned. The adult is the care giver, the protector, they cannot afford to abandoned by them. As I say, in a healthy environment, what could be better, but in an unhealthy one, what could be worse?
Put this into a gymnastic setting, and the attachment to an unhealthy coach can leave a child feeling as though they have no absolutely no control at all over their circumstances. That there is no other way to success, no other effective method. At age group levels especially, if the squad is successful, the idea of trying another club, another way can seem like failure. A child cannot look rationally at high drop out numbers, for all the early success, how many are making it to senior elite level, and how many are burned out through over training injury, and/or emotional exhaustion. Belittling, shunning, shaming, making an example of, threatening with removal from the squad can all be used. Children who speak out for themselves, or speak to their parents who then speak to the coaches are punished, then quickly learn to be silent. I have read many comments asking where the parents are in this, the answer is they often don’t know (many gyms have no access to viewing sessions), or slowly over time, they believe that this is gymnastics. We know of course how the sport at high level completely takes over the child and the family’s world, cues are taken from other parents who have been there longer, the child won’t hear anything said about the coach for fear of reprisal, medals and trophies, selection to squads follow, compliance, compliance, compliance, absolute control, until a child who wants nothing more than to be a gymnast, who has slowly over time through what they have seen, through their learned experiences, through the insidious erosion of self esteem, has come to believe that this is what it takes, believe that they are the problem, and that only their coach can get them where they want to be.
Gymnastics is for everyone, but at the top it is for the very few, as with all sports. At elite level, gymnastics is tough right from the start. I would say the toughest of sports in demanding so much in terms of hours, work ethic, ability to withstand pain and discomfort from such young children. It is completely unrealistic I feel to say there should be absolutely no discomfort at all, stretching is painful, conditioning is painful, blisters are painful, long hours are tiring, and all are essential to excel at gymnastics. The joy of gymnastics at this level comes in what all the hard work enables these young athletes to do, the progress and the achievements, the satisfaction of their efforts paying off. So young children learn there does need to be an element of sacrifice, they believe that the coach knows what is best for their development, and if they have a good coach, the balance is right, but if they have a coach who does not adhere to healthy practices, often a child’s career starts with them knowing no different, normalising bad practice from and early age, and it goes from there. There is a definite line between strict training that pushes and demands the very best from an athlete in order to get them to the elite level, and abuse.
So where did this culture come from? The idea that controlling a child, that making them more fearful of the coach than they are of whats’s demanded of them? Can we trace it back to learning from some of the Eastern Bloc coaches whose methods in Communist systems now would be frowned upon? Their job to deliver for a nation who used sport to promote and validate their ethos to the world. Having thousands of children to select from and discard, as parents living in abject poverty could get a child fed by the state if they made it to national squad, and if they became an international champion get given a car, an apartment, and pension that ordinary members of the public could never aspire to; meant in many circumstances that although it cannot be denied that at the time it was a system of exceptional technical coaching, world leading sports science and medicine funded by the state, that only those that could withstand the toughest regimens came through. Endless champions yes, but the collateral damage was huge. If one breaks, there were many more athletes ready to replace her.
Can we trace a line back to some coaches learning and selecting the worst parts of this regimen, coaching their athletes to success, meaning other coaches adopted these methods, and the gymnasts taught by these coaches who became coaches themselves carried them on? Possibly. Can we excuse it? No.
What we do know given the sheer volume of stories coming out day after day, is that wherever it came from, we have had coaches here who are using unhealthy and abusive methods to coach their gymnasts, and coaches that are seeing this happen, and not speaking out themselves. Is there education about safe practice in coaching for those wishing to teach in this country? Yes there is, both in qualification courses which are required in order to be able to teach, and the safe guarding course which all coaches have to attend. The issue here then lies in the disconnect for some between what is being taught, and what is being practiced, which I believe goes back to the ‘There is no other way’ idea. Steve Scott of ITV news stated yesterday, that British Gymnastics deals with upwards of 150 complaints a year, 3/4 of which are abuse related, and that two or three of which per month on average are serious enough to hand over to social services. If true, that is a serious problem, especially in a sport predominantly practiced by children.
So what can be done? Consequences, and it seems as though this has up until this point been problematic in some cases. Every club has a welfare officer, and he/she would usually be the first port of call. In some circumstances, people may not feel comfortable taking this route, and there is the option to report to British Gymnastics directly. British Gymnastic have an extensive Safeguarding policy which you can read here:
Here you can see the quick guide to responding to concerns, and the flow of action that should follow.
Reportedly, there seem to have been issues with consequences. One gymnast has stated that her coach was reported as early as 2009, then again for similar practice in 2012, and again in 2016 when action was then taken. I have read numerous posts over the last week or so of complaints where the outcome was no case to answer. Can they all be no case to answer? When such a stringent policy is in place, when it is so clear, how many of the 150 complaints per year do have a case to answer?
Burden of proof seems to be part of the issue often stated, I read that the outcome is regularly based on there being no easy way to prove incidents took place, that one party describes an event one way, and another in a completely different context. That when welfare officers are sent to visit the club in question, of course there is no sign of the reported behaviour.
Harder to understand are the repeated cases, if a coach is reported multiple times by either the same, or different parties over a period of time, there is a problem.
We need a change of culture. We need all coaches to firstly understand what abuse is, and whether they are practicing it, to be able to make the definition between strict coaching, and unacceptable practices. We need it to be seen as completely unacceptable, no blind eyes to be turned, rather concerns raised. If there is no place in this sport for that type of coaching, people won’t coach like that. We need consequences. We need reports backed up without fear, and swift, strict consequences for those who are guilty to discourage others. Coaches shouldn’t be able to have to leave one club due to their unhealthy methods, but then skip to another, and another, and another without the parents of the gymnasts at the new club having any idea.
There will be a way to go for trust to be rebuilt, we need to see British Gymnastics mean what they say about being horrified by the reports that have come out, for gymnasts to be safe from consequence when reporting, for the independent review to be truly independent, and for genuine accountability, apology, and reprisals. Most of all, the gymnasts need to feel the governing body is genuinely on their side. That nothing, not results based funding, not fear of poor media coverage, not reluctance to stop successful but unhealthy coaches comes before their well being.
This is a beautiful sport, it is being ripped apart at present, and rightly so. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has put my head in my hands before reading on, watching more, wondering what the next day will bring. We should watch though, and we should listen. To those who chose to tell their stories, your courage roars. To those who have not, you have the control, only you. It is neither right nor wrong for you to choose to speak out or not, no one is taking your control from you.
We have incredible gymnasts in this country, our highest level athletes were looking sensational coming into what would have been an Olympic year, and I felt that Tokyo medals were there for the taking. We have incredible coaches employing healthy practices at all levels, including international level, and we have incredible clubs where thousands of children thrive, learn skills far and beyond flying through the air, and form second families. In these times it is also important not to forget them, it is not all tarnished, and we can recover from this. We do not want children to leave gymnastics, we want them to love gymnastics, because gymnastics a beautiful sport. As we prepare to open the gym doors again across the country I hope that we open them to a safe, healthy, enriching experience for all.