*(Featured image: Gemma Billington)
An independent Human Rights Commission Review into Gymnastics Australia is underway, after gymnasts began publicly sharing accounts of alleged abuse and mistreatment within the sport.
Gymnastics Australia’s CEO Kitty Chiller, announced the commencement of a Human Rights Commission Review to 180,000 members, in light of the global push to reform gymnastics’ competitive culture. Written submissions have been invited until January, while focus groups and interviews will also be conducted.
Ms Chiller said that a culture shift is required and that the national governing body for gymnastics is “committed to doing more”.
The announcement came after gymnasts began posting their experiences of abuse and mistreatment in the sport, using the hashtag #GymnastAllianceAUS.
Yet there is growing concern that Gymnastics Australia’s response is too little too late. Former Australian gymnast, Desnee Richter, described an organisation that compromises its athletes’ wellbeing for the chance of gold.
“My [former] coach weighed us all. In front of each other,” she told Central News.
“And obviously I was going through puberty, no one else was. And she literally was like, in front of everyone, you need to lose weight. I just started crying.”
Ms Richter welcomes a culture shift in the industry after her experiences.
“At the moment it’s just a culture of fear,” she said. “You do what the coach says, otherwise you’re not going to get anywhere. Bad things will happen.”
Despite Gymnastics Australia stating that they have “zero tolerance of any form of abuse” Olivia*, a long-term member of the organisation, describes an “unnecessary and abusive” use of fear.
“I’ve seen it all. I’ve watched it happen and I tried to do what I could to help change the situation… to get out of there so I didn’t have to be a part of it,” she said.
“The fear is not only put on the gymnasts, but it’s put on coaches and it’s also put on parents. Parents are put in a position where they are not allowed to speak out either. Coaches have directly told parents ‘your child will be out’.”
Olivia said that for her, the Human Rights Commission review is “the minimal amount required to make it look like they’re doing something where nothing is actually being done to make changes happen”.
Australian gymnasts were inspired to share their own personal testimonies as a response to the recent documentary, “Athlete A”, which follows the investigation and subsequent conviction of former USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar.
Tim Evans, one of the investigative journalists who broke the story for the Indianapolis Star, says it’s the unique power imbalance between coach and gymnast that enables this abuse to thrive.
“The coaches, the officials have all the power,” he said.
“The athletes do all the work, suffer all the pain, all the heartache and don’t really have any say.”
The Star’s investigation exposed the dangerous culture which allowed Nassar to harm these young girls and the suppression of complaints by USA Gymnastics which allowed it to continue.
However, it has since been made clear that this is not an isolated incident, provoking an international push for reform.
Gymnastics NSW’s President, Carol Mills, is hopeful that these measures will complement the policies, training and annual reviews that are already enacted at a state level.
“We’ll be watching very closely what comes out of the Gymnastics Australia review,” Ms Mills said.
“We will participate wherever that’s appropriate and we will learn the lessons that might come from it, but we’re not waiting for that.”
Gymnastics Australia initiated an independent investigation into allegations of abuse in 2018. Yet the inquiry was discontinued when allegations were found to be incomplete and took longer than expected.
The results of the Human Rights Commission review will be published in the first quarter of 2021.
— Gemma Billington, @gemmabillingt
*Name changed to protect source’s identity.