Australia’s secret shame: young girls were victims of physical abuse and mistreatment from gymnastics coaches for decades – while stark details are revealed about how children were abused from the age of eight
- The culture of the sport allowed for physical, sexual and emotional abuse in the sport
- Interviewees cited examples of strength training used as punishment
- A report found body shaming was widespread due to a focus on the ‘ideal body’
An independent study of Australian gymnastics found that sports culture allowed physical, sexual and emotional abuse in sports.
The report, supplemented by the Australian Human Rights Commission, made 12 key recommendations based on five key findings.
It found that ‘current coaching practices pose a risk of abuse and harm to athletes’ and that there was ‘insufficient focus on understanding the full range of behaviors that can pose child abuse and neglect in gymnastics’.
It also noted that the sport’s focus on ‘winning at all costs’ and the acceptance of negative and offensive coaching behaviors resulted in ‘silencing the athlete’s voice and increased risk of abuse and harm’.
An independent study of Australian gymnastics found that the sport’s culture allowed physical, sexual and emotional abuse (stock image)
According to the report, gymnasts were “predominantly young and female,” which contributed to power inequality.
Of the 231,200 athletes performing gymnastics in Australia in 2019, 77 percent of gymnasts were women, while 91 percent were under the age of 12.
Interviewees cited examples of strength training used as punishment, or “overstretching” exercises that left them in tears or injured – which in turn were often downplayed.
The report also found that at all levels, gymnastics “had not adequately and adequately addressed complaints of abuse and harm” and “effectively” protected “children and youth.
Interviewees mentioned grooming and inappropriate physical contact in public and private spaces – with one participant saying athletes had “ signs and cues ” to point each other to avoid certain coaches, while parents were often not allowed to watch or attend workouts.
The report also found that body shaming was widespread due to its focus on the ‘ideal body’ – which for female competitors was a pre-pubescent ‘pixie-like’ shape.
One participant said she was called fat by the AIS when she was “11 years old and weighed 22 kilograms,” while another recalled asking her mother to wrap her in a happy cloth so she would sweat more.
Several interviewees continued to deal with related eating disorders and mental health problems into adulthood.
The report also found that body shaming was widespread due to a focus on the ‘ideal body’ – which for female competitors was a pre-pubescent ‘pixie-like’ shape (stock image)
“There is a spotlight on the human rights of athletes around the world and many of the lessons from this review are critical to all sports in Australia,” said Kate Jenkins, sex discrimination commissioner who led the investigation.
“This is an opportunity for gymnastics in Australia to lead the way in child safety and gender equality.”
Gymnastics Australia, which commissioned the report in August last year, apologized and pledged to implement all 12 recommendations.
Gymnastics Australia apologizes unconditionally to all athletes and family members who have experienced any form of abuse by participating in the Gymnastics Australia sport, said in a statement.
“We also thank the athletes and other members of the community who were involved in the assessment process and acknowledge their courage in doing so.”
The report included 47 interviews with 57 participants and 138 written submissions from current and former athletes and their families, staff, coaches and administrators.
It has not investigated specific incidents or allegations of child abuse and neglect, misconduct, bullying, abuse, sexual harassment or assault.