Gymnastics: Review finds climate of fear, retribution within sport

By Felicity Reid for RNZ 

A climate of fear and retribution has been highlighted by an independent investigation into the culture of Gymnastics New Zealand.

The investigation was established after complaints by gymnasts to the media last year about the mistreatment of athletes in the sport.

Ten overarching areas of concern are identified by a three-member review panel, headed by sports integrity expert David Howman.

The three-month review process was completed in December 2020 and released to the public on Wednesday, with more than 200 respondents.

Athletes and parents have told the review panel of incidences of gymnasts being forced to train on injuries and fearing repercussions, and the disapproval of coaches if they did not train injured.

Parents describe feeling "powerless to intervene" when they witnessed "poor behaviour", fearing retribution for themselves or their children.

"A common theme expressed in many submissions was regret at having witnessed inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour in training or competitions, but not having said or done anything to intervene," the review notes.

The review became aware of situations where complaints relating to abuse, "which were significant in nature and ongoing, were not advanced to the appropriate authorities for investigation, because the complainants either feared retribution or feared the process as being damaging to the well-being of the child."

Gymnastics: Review finds climate of fear, retribution within sport
Photo credit: Photosport

The lack of a confidential way for gymnasts to "have their voices heard in a way that does not carry risk of retribution or isolation", is criticised by the review panel, which suggests forming an athlete commission or union for the sport.

Coaches that perpetrated a cycle of abuse were a problem, the review notes.

The coaches can influence generations of gymnasts positively or negatively, the review says.

"Many coaches were brought to New Zealand over the last three decades with the goal of seeking international success for gymnasts here and they introduced abusive coaching practices, which became normalised."

Some submitters say they "lost trust in GNZ" and that feedback was ignored by the organisation.

Female artistic and rhythmic gymnasts have expressed concerns about athlete welfare, which included poor physical and mental well-being, worries about body image, eating disorders and limited access to medical treatment.

Female competitors also raise concerns about a requirement to train and compete in a leotard, which made them feel vulnerable or embarrassed - especially during menstruation.

The review also highlights the power imbalance between adult coaches and child gymnasts, and that coaches became "pseudo-parents" during the long hours the athletes spent training.

The review panel says a lack of funding could hinder the implementation of some of the recommendations, but gymnastics is not the only sport in New Zealand facing financial constraints.

Among the recommendations of the panel:

  • Seek advice from Sport NZ, the Children's Commissioner and Oranga Tamariki on establishing a complaint and reporting-of-abuse process that is easy to access and appropriate for children, particularly where the child is the complainant
  • Request SNZ consider the establishment of a national independent commission
  • Ensure qualified investigators are available to the gymnastics community, when misconduct allegations arise
  • Create a medical and health advisory panel to advise on injury management and training limits, and appoint a medical director for the elite programme
  • Allow parents to watch training from an appropriate viewing area
  • Consider further review of competition and training attire to address the safety, physical, psychological and holistic wellbeing of gymnasts
  • Create a confidential pathway between current elite athletes and former athletes to allow issues to be shared and advanced without fear
  • Ensure no conflict of interest exists in judging appointments

Gymnastics New Zealand plans to have a seven-member steering committee in place by March to oversee the implementation of the recommendations.

The panel would include survivors, athletes and human rights representation, alongside representation from the gymnastics community and SNZ.

"We offer our sincerest apology to every person who was hurt or suffered during their time taking part in our sport," says Gymnastics NZ chief executive Tony Compier.

"Coming forward to tell your personal stories took immeasurable courage. Your courage provides both the catalyst that drives our commitment to change and the example to which others can aspire.

"Our work is only just beginning. It is clear that Gymnastics NZ has a lot to do to ensure our sport is safe, enjoyable and rewarding for everyone."

GNZ has committed to "attitudinal and behavioural change among the sport's leaders, coaches, administrators, parents and caregivers to make sure the athletes' well-being and safety are always paramount".