25 Aug 2020

Exposure of maltreatment in gymnastics long time coming

7:09 am on 25 August 2020

A New Zealand academic is surprised the widespread culture of abuse in women's gymnastics was not made public sooner.

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Photo: 123rf.com

In July, New Zealand gymnasts followed their international peers in revealing experiences of emotional and physical abuse in the sport and a lack of action by Gymnastics New Zealand.

The global outpouring of mistreatment resulted in calls for urgent change but Lincoln University's Dr Roslyn Kerr knew this time was coming.

"There is a long history of research into maltreatment in artistic gymnastics," Kerr said.

"We've heard a lot of these stories come out over the years, you might remember the book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, which was published in 1995, that was probably the first major publication of that really showed a problem here so in a way perhaps it is surprising that it has taken this long for anything else to come out again."

Now that the abuse is out in the open, Kerr is at the forefront of an action plan.

Kerr and 20 other international scholars, who are associated with the International Socio-Cultural research group on Women's Artistic Gymnastics (ISCWAG), have outlined eight specific areas that they believed needed to be addressed to improve athlete welfare in gymnastics globally.

Historical beliefs around how to treat athletes that had "dogged the sport for 40 years or more," needed to change, Kerr said.

The group wanted abuse allegations to be independently investigated; for gymnastics governing bodies to publicly and privately acknowledge wrongdoings; athletes rights to be prioritised; independent welfare programmes that include nutrition and psychology support; extended coach education with a focus on abusive behaviours and practices, child development, training, and gender ideals; inclusion and acceptance of adult athletes inside and outside the sport; for sponsors to withdraw financial support if organisations are found to employ abusive coaches, breach human/child rights policies, and fail to ensure gymnast welfare; and responsible research into women's artistic gymnastics.

The actions the scholars identified aim to "empower gymnasts and decentralise the authoritative position coaches, officials, support staff, and other authorities have in women's artistic gymnastics".

"One of the main things we want to see is that there is an overall approach to addressing this," Kerr said.

"Sometimes there is an emphasis on a particular organisation or a particular type of person that is at fault, such as coaches for example, and that's not to say those people aren't part of the problem but I think in terms of what we really wanted to make sure was clear was that there is a really overall picture going on here and there is a lot of different players and change needs to take place at a lot of different levels."

Former gymnast Georgia Cervin

Georgia Cervin. Photo: Georgia Cervin

Former New Zealand Commonwealth Games gymnast, Georgia Cervin, who is a honorary research fellow in sports history at the University of Western Australia also signed the ISCWAG's manifesto.

Cervin said the culture of abuse is so ingrained in gymnastics that many athletes will not have even realised they have been abused.

The ISCWAG's manifesto that was put together days ago, is detailed and offered several solutions.

Sweden's gymnastics governing body had already shown interest to using it to help reform their system.

GNZ is to be independently reviewed to investigate the culture of the organisation as a whole and Kerr said she thought GNZ would consider the ISCWAG's recommendations alongside the outcome of the review.

"It don't think this is achievable really fast but as long as we can see some of these things happening in the short term and build on that towards the long term then we can see change," Kerr said.

The manifesto identified figure skating and synchronised swimming as sports that should take note of the proposed actions to inform these sports' futures.

In New Zealand, Kerr said the 2018 reviews in cycling and rowing that revealed similar concerns to that of the gymnasts proved issues around athlete welfare were not isolated.

"I definitely think some of these issues are in all sports, the power imbalance [between coaches and athletes] that sort of thing is definitely across more sports.

"Certainly in research it is not gymnastics specific at all there is a whole lot of different areas where they've found this in different sports.

"I think there is just some really specific ones in gymnastics around the expectations of the body and while that is also a part of some other sports like long distance running and swimming have the same thing it takes a particular [form] in gymnastics."