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Australian gymnastics ‘a high-risk environment for abuse’, review finds

An independent cultural review of gymnastics in Australia has revealed “systemic risk factors” within the sport, including for child abuse and neglect, misconduct, bullying, abuse, sexual harassment and assault towards athletes.

The review, undertaken by the Human Rights Commission, was commissioned by Gymnastics Australia in August 2020 after serious complaints were made alleging mental and physical abuse of athletes.

Olympians and Commonwealth Games medal winners were among a group of gymnasts who used social media platforms last year to make allegations of abuse they suffered during their careers.

The commission heard from members of Australia’s gymnastics community, who frequently described the sport’s culture as “toxic”. The final report, published on Monday, recommended a wide range of changes to the sport.

“Some of these risk factors also exist in many other sports, including significant power disparities between athletes and coaches and administrators,” the report, titled Change The Routine, stated.

“However, the commission found that the unique facets of gymnastics, including the extremely high proportion of young female athletes, contribute to a high-risk environment for abuse and for the maintenance and reinforcement of negative societal stereotypes and ideals around gender.”

The review, which did not investigate individual allegations or make findings against any individuals, was prompted by the US documentary, Athlete A. Its release led to a number of Australian athletes coming forward with their own experiences.

“There is a spotlight on the human rights of athletes around the world and many of the lessons of this review are critical to all sports in Australia,” the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, who led the review, said. “This is an opportunity for gymnastics in Australia to lead the way on child safety and gender equality.”

Twelve recommendations for change were made by the commission after the review found that current coaching practices create a risk of abuse or harm to athletes, and that there is insufficient focus on understanding and preventing the full range of behaviours that can constitute child abuse and neglect in gymnastics.

It identified a focus on a damaging “win at all costs” mentality, and that an acceptance of negative and abusive coaching behaviours has effectively resulted in the silencing of the athletes.

There is also a focus on the “ideal body”, especially for young female athletes, which in addition to inappropriate and harmful weight management and body shaming practices, can result in the development of eating disorders, the report stated.

And it was found that, as a sport, gymnastics has not appropriately and adequately addressed complaints of abuse and harm, and is not effectively safeguarding children and young people.

The commission conducted 47 interviews with 57 participants, including current and former athletes, their families, staff, coaches and other relevant personnel, during the review process. There were also 138 written submissions.

Jenkins commended the bravery of those who had shared their experiences during the review and acknowledged “it can be both confronting and daunting to relive past experiences of trauma”.

“Members of the community shared experiences of abuse, misconduct and bullying, but they also shared stories of hope and of their love for the sport,” Jenkins said.

Of the approximately 231,000 athletes involved in gymnastics in Australia, 77% are female and 91% are under the age of 12. Most are engaged in the sport at a recreational level.

“For all gymnasts, and particularly the girls and young women who make up the majority of gymnasts in Australia, I urge the sport to work swiftly and collaboratively to implement the recommendations included in this report and ensure child safety is considered a core responsibility at all levels,” Jenkins said.

A high-level review of relevant corporate policies, protocols and governance structures at all levels of the sport was also undertaken.

Gymnastics Australia responded to the release of the “confronting” report with an apology and said there was a lot of work to be done.

“Gymnastics Australia unreservedly apologises to all athletes and family members who have experienced any form of abuse participating in the sport,” a statement read.

The national body will adopt all 12 recommendations and its integrity committee, which was set up last year, will oversee their implementation.

“While important work has been undertaken in recent years to improve policies, education and support mechanisms for our athletes and coaches across child safety and athlete wellbeing, there is clearly more to be done,” the statement read.

“The Gymnastics Australia board and management acknowledge this work needs to be underpinned by transformational cultural change across all levels of gymnastics in Australia.”

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