7 Aug 2020

Many gymnasts won't know they've been abused

9:14 am on 7 August 2020

The culture of abuse is so ingrained in gymnastics that many athletes will not have even realised they have been abused, former New Zealand Commonwealth Games gymnast Georgia Cervin says.

Former gymnast Georgia Cervin

Georgia Cervin during competition Photo: Georgia Cervin

Allegations of multiple New Zealand gymnasts, of varying ages and levels of competition, suffering from verbal abuse, physical abuse, bullying and unsafe training methods have surfaced over the past week.

But Cervin, who is also an honorary research fellow in sports history at the University of Western Australia, suspects more gymnasts have encountered this treatment but did not know it.

"Abuse or mistreatment is notoriously difficult to identify, for a lot of gymnasts they don't recognise it until they leave the sport - if ever. That's because it has become such a normal part of the sport," Cervin said.

"We're seeing what is happening in gymnastics in New Zealand is consistent with what is happening in the rest of the world, we're no different.

"I just hope that now we're aware of the extent of the problem we might move to a more proactive approach in the future, that includes ongoing monitoring of coaches, clubs and officials and stronger education around the issues we've been hearing about."

Gymnastics New Zealand and North Harbour Gymnastics, two organisations at the centre of the abuse claims, have said they were not aware of the raft of allegations.

"I'd like to think most truly didn't know," Cervin said.

"I think if we had better education around what constitutes abuse and what alternative kinds of coaching achieve results, we might also have more people willing to speak out when they see unacceptable behaviours."

Gymsports New Zealand CEO Tony Compier.
The organisation has commissioned an independent report into the sport.

Gymsports New Zealand CEO Tony Compier. The organisation has commissioned an independent report into the sport. Photo: Photosport

Some in the New Zealand gymnastics community have dismissed the claims of abuse since they were made public, Cervin said.

"[They are] arguing that some of these things are part of the sport, they're what makes it tough, they're what makes it challenging."

The abusive culture can be traced back many years, according to the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games athlete.

World Cup Gymnastics, Hisense Arena, Melbourne, Australia, 24 February 2017.

2017 World Cup Gymnastics Photo: PHOTOSPORT

While Cervin had a good relationship with her personal coach, she knows that is not the experience of all athletes.

"I'd say it has been going on this long because people haven't been willing to really question whether things like early specialisation, weighing and yelling are actually a necessary part of the sport, let alone what long-term effects it might be having or whether or not they're even achieving performance outcomes that coaches intend.

"It's not uncommon for parents to be banned from observing practice, so I would really like to see these restrictions go to ensure that there are people who are looking after gymnasts and coaches and officials can be held to account if they are not acting appropriately."

GNZ has launched an athlete-lead advisory group to look into the safety and well-being of athletes.

Cervin had some concerns about the group and who would make up the membership.

She was advocating for current and former athletes to be included alongside independent people with knowledge of gymnastics as well as coaching and athlete welfare.

"I'd like to see some really good thinking about how all the different gymnastics disciplines are represented, if it is aimed at high performance or club gymnastics and how the group actually feeds information to Gymnastics New Zealand's decision making processes.

"But above all I'd really like to see group not made up of people appointed by Gymnastics New Zealand, but by people who gymnasts and their parents elect to work on their behalf."

GNZ is now subject to independent review aimed to investigate the culture of the organisation as a whole.

To clean up the sport in New Zealand - and globally - Cervin said a change in mindset was required.

"While coaches should have better training in child development and learning, I'd actually like to see a shift away from the idea that women's gymnasts is a child's sport. There's plenty of evidence that women can be extremely good gymnasts as adults and we know that adult gymnasts generally enjoy much more autonomy in their training and report positive coaching experiences.

"So raising the minimum age for women's gymnastics, which has notoriously young athletes, could be one way of encouraging a global cultural shift."

Cervin also mooted a global monitoring system, in a similar model to the the World Anti-Doping Agency, that looked out for athlete welfare.

"It could operate internationally and nationally and individuals, clubs and countries could face sanctions if they were found to cause a pattern of harm to athletes."