"We Won’t Stop": Gymnasts Around the World Are Organizing To End Abuse

The Gymnast Alliance is forcing a reckoning with abusive practices that have long been at the center of the sport.
September 23, 2020, 2:36pm
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Becky Downie in 2016. Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

At the end of June, Becky Downie, a member of the British women’s gymnastics team for more than a decade and the 2019 world silver medalist on the uneven bars, tweeted “Athlete A just opened a huge can of worms in the gymnastics world and I’m not sure people are ready for what’s next!!”

A few days later, we learned what the 28-year-old had been hinting at: a movement of gymnasts rising up against psychological, emotional, and physical abuse they had endured throughout their careers. It started with the British gymnasts, a statement, and a hashtag. On June 29th, dozens of current and former British gymnasts posted a statement to their social media feeds about how in response to Athlete A, the Netflix documentary about former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar and the culture of intimidation and cruelty that allowed him to abuse gymnasts for decades, they were standing in solidarity with all survivors and condemning the abusive culture of the sport that enabled his crimes. The statement was as emphatic about what this group of athletes stood for—ethical coaching, training regimens based on scientific research, a culture built on trust instead of fear—as against. Each gymnast ended their post with the #gymnastalliance hashtag.

From there, it took off. In the weeks to come, hundreds of gymnasts from all over would post their personal stories of pain and abuse to social media using the hashtag. They spoke of being forced to train and compete on serious injuries; of being publicly shamed for their weight; of being screamed at and belittled for making mistakes in practice. Press attention would soon follow, with reports on ITV and other outlets. And the #gymnastalliance would soon spread to other countries, with gymnasts in Belgium, New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands speaking up about abuse at the highest level of sports there. Hotlines have been set up; independent inquiries have been promised; coaches have been suspended.

Downie was right; we weren’t ready. But the long overdue reckoning with abusive coaching in women’s gymnastics had arrived.

“I think there is a natural build to people kind of being ready and to being able to speak up and it requires people sort of going it alone first,” Jennifer Sey, one of the producers of Athlete A, told me. (She also appears in the documentary.) Sey would know; she had been going at it alone for years. In 2008, the 1986 national champion published a memoir, Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams, that was an unsparing look at her experiences in the sport and the elite gymnastics world as a whole. The backlash from much of the gymnastics community was swift; Sey was denounced by some of her former teammates and on blogs. (There was more than one thread devoted to tearing her and the book down on the gymnastics message board where I used to lurk.) One of the people who criticized Sey’s memoir was Jane Allen, then the head of Gymnastics Australia. Nowadays, Allen is CEO of British Gymnastics, and many British gymnasts have been calling her for her resignation since the Gymnast Alliance began, saying that under her tenure, a culture of fear and intimidation permeated the sport and that the organization didn’t handle allegations of abuse against coaches appropriately. Or at all.

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Jane Allen, CEO of British Gymnastics. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images.

Sey, 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu (who came out against the Karolyis, the infamous Romanian coaching duo whose pupils included Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, back in 2008), and a handful of other gymnasts spent years out there twisting alone until September 2016 when the Indianapolis Star published its first story about Nassar. That’s when the dam broke. Hundreds of women and girls, many of them gymnasts, came forward and said that Nassar had sexually abused them. But they also talked about the culture of the sport—extremely young athletes forced to train upwards of 30 hours a week on injuries, domineering coaches who fat-shamed them and forced them to train and compete on injuries Though most of the focus was on sexual abuse and the Nassar case, this broader culture came under scrutiny as well.

Like many of the Nassar survivors, Athlete A indicted that culture. In the film, Sey has perhaps the most important insight into how the culture operates and fucks with your perceptions of reality, so that in many cases it takes years or even decades to realize that what happened to you was not “tough coaching” but abuse.

"You think you’re hungry," Sey said in the documentary, "you think your ankle hurts, you think you’re working very hard. But you’re told and you’re screamed that you’re lazy and you’re fat and there’s nothing wrong with your ankle."

"You’re told and you’re screamed that you’re lazy and you’re fat and there’s nothing wrong with your ankle."

It is this aspect of Athlete A that gymnasts who have posted under the hashtag seem to have latched onto. The majority of stories posted since Gymnast Alliance first appeared have been about emotional and psychological abuse, not sexual abuse (though there are certainly accounts of sexual abuse in some of the stories). And it’s the culture of the sport that the very first statement posted to the hashtag took aim at. It was at once a statement of solidarity with abuse survivors and a call for changing the sport’s norms to include ethical, humane coaching practices.

“I had the idea on the weekend after I watched the film, what if we did a joint social media post so it came from all of us,” Jennifer Pinches, a member of Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic team, told VICE News. “The film does such a good job of showing this is not just one bad guy. It’s the culture around [him] that enabled it to happen. I felt like it was important for me to address that.”

She started reaching out to her former teammates, who reached out to others. People got on board quickly. Pinches showed the statement to the other gymnasts for input and approval. It was 2000 British Olympian Lisa Mason who came up with the hashtag and, as it would later turn out, the name of a movement for gymnast rights. When it came time, dozens of British gymnasts posted the statement along with the hashtag, filling up the social media feeds of the gymnastics community.

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Jennifer Pinches shakes hands with an admirer at the London Olympics. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

“Then I just sat watching other people post it, for like the whole evening, [wondering] is this actually having an effect?” Pinches said.

It was. That’s due, in no small part, to the planning that Pinches, Mason, and others put into it. They made sure that it wouldn’t be just one or two voices shouting into the void; rather it was dozens, which then turned into hundreds. “The outpouring of support on social media was incredible and heartbreaking because it led to people opening up about things that happened to them.”

Though the #gymnastalliance would quickly become something of a sports #metoo movement, the original statement is devoid of mention of specific misdeeds or abuses. That, Pinches, explained, was by design. Though she fully supports all of the women who have come forward and told their painful stories, Pinches didn’t want people to feel that they couldn’t participate unless they were willing to talk about their own personal trauma publicly. “I 100 percent just felt that people should only do what’s best for them, what’s comfortable for them, what’s best for their mental health,” she said.

“Also, lots and lots of gymnasts I know have only had positive experiences and I didn’t want to exclude [them]. This should be about everyone coming together to say this is the type of culture we need to see.” In this way, Pinches and the British gymnasts built the largest possible base of support, a base that has only grown in the months since the movement that they’ve created has gone global and led to dozens of news stories, promises of independent investigations, and talk of reform from all of the major institutions of the sport.

And the timing couldn’t have been better for the British gymnasts. “It’s not that no one’s ever said ‘Gymnasts need a healthy environment’ before,” said Pinches. “That’s not a new message. It’s that all the conditions are right for people to actually take this seriously.” First, there was the platform, Netflix. Everyone has Netflix. Then there was the pandemic. People were in quarantine with little else to do but watch Netflix. Many gymnasts, perhaps for the first time in their careers, were not training and had time to reflect on their own experiences. Finally, the film started trending almost right after its release. The popularity of the documentary and the public reaction to it was a sign to the gymnasts that people were watching, that they were listening, and that this was their chance to strike.

But perhaps the most important audience of all was their fellow gymnasts. Shortly after the British gymnasts’ statements went up, gymnasts from other countries started to add their stories to the hashtag.

Mary-Anne Monckton was the first Australian gymnast to post her story. In her Instagram post, she shared a familiar story to anyone who had been following the hashtag: She was screamed at by coaches, belittled and shamed for her weight, had food withheld, and overtrained to the point of career-ending injury.

“After watching the Athlete A documentary, I started to realize that behaviors we thought were normal, were, in fact abusive behavior and wrong,” she wrote to me in an email. It took seeing the behaviors onscreen, acknowledged as abusive in the film, to get her to realize this.

Witnessing her British compatriots speak out encouraged her to do the same. Which then led to more Australian gymnasts coming forward. Gymnastics Australia has called on the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to conduct an independent investigation of the national governing body and the culture of sport. The AHRC is the same institution that conducted a review of abuse in the Australian Defense Force. In New Zealand, the outcry from current and former gymnasts led to the establishment of an independent inquiry headed by David Howman, the former CEO of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Gymnast Alliance spread beyond the Commonwealth. Gymnasts in the Netherlands spoke out about abusive coaches there, leading to a temporary suspension of the women’s elite program the outcome of an investigation. The uprising also spread to Belgium. Dorien Motten is one of several Belgian gymnasts who has spoken out. Like many other gymnasts who have posted their stories, this is not the first time that Motten had tried to raise the alarm. She told me that she, along with a few others, submitted an anonymous report about the abuse to her federation’s ethics commission with the assistance of a psychologist. They were told that they had to provide their names in order to move forward, which was not something they were keen on doing since the head of the ethics commission was also the head of the federation and the women’s program. “Our complaint was wiped off the table immediately,” she wrote in an email.

“When athletes are either abused or being taken advantage of, it’s because the power imbalance is so strong and so one-sided,” Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, an international athlete advocacy group, told VICE News. I don’t know how much more one-sided you can get than having the director of the ethics commission also be the head of the federation. In this scenario, the gymnasts hold absolutely none of the cards.

“When athletes are either abused or being taken advantage of, it’s because the power imbalance is so strong and so one-sided.”

“When all the sexual abuse came out in America, we were shocked and we immediately thought about the things we [had] gone through,” Motten wrote in an email. “But our main thought was that we [had] gone through wasn’t that big of a deal because we didn’t have any sexual abuse, only mental and emotional.” The Belgian gymnasts decided not to say anything publicly at that time.

“But then Athlete A came out and we saw that the mental abuse was kind of a base for the sexual abuse to take place,” she continued. “I asked the others, ‘Would we [have] let a doctor do those things to us when we were on the national team?’ And the answer was yes. We would have let this happen because we [were] brainwashed and would have thought it was normal, like all of the other bad things that happened there.”

This realization became an impetus for the Belgian gymnasts to start speaking out publicly. “We started talking again with the girls who we had filed the complaint with 1.5 years [ago] and we said, ‘Ok, we do something now or we have to stay silent forever.’...This was our chance to make a change!”

With the rise of the Alliance and the sheer volume of abusive stories that gymnasts all over the world have told and the common threads found running through all of them, the question we must ask is this: How did women’s gymnastics get to this point where experiencing abusive or demeaning coaching appears to be the norm and not the exception?

(While a handful of male gymnasts have come forward, citing abusive practices from their coaches and program directors, the overwhelming majority of the complaints have come from women, so for the purposes of this story, I’m going to focus on women’s gymnastics.)

Most point to the age of female gymnasts—among the youngest at the Games—and the early specialization demands of the sport, which push athletes to submit to long training hours when they are very young and still growing. Not only does the high level training commence young, but so does the normalization of certain abusive behaviors.

That women’s gymnastics would come to be dominated by especially young athletes was not obvious in the earliest years of the sport. The early gymnasts were adult women, in both age, appearance, and performance. Acrobatics weren’t emphasized; rather, the rules required these gymnasts to exhibit a certain femininity and grace in all of their movements. This was the kind of women’s sport that the International Olympic Committee, which was infamously against including women’s events in the Games, could get behind.

Starting in the mid-to-late 1960s, the ages of female gymnasts started to decline while the acrobatic complexity started going in the opposite direction. This led to the International Gymnastics Federation instituting the sport’s first age minimum in 1971. This move was not primarily borne out of concern for the athletes but out of concern for the image of the sport as one suitable for adult women. But the pixie trend would not be stopped. The following year, Olga Korbut made her Olympic debut at 17; four years after that, Nadia Comaneci became the youngest Olympic champion at 14.

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Nadia Comaneci in 1976. Photo by Don Morley/Getty Images.

The age was raised again in 1981 to 15 and then, in 1993, FIG voted again to increase the age to 16, a change that would take effect in 1997, after a wave of bad press related to athlete well-being, Dr. Georgia Cervin observed in her paper on the relationship between the IOC and FIG. Michel Leglise, President of the FIG Medical Commission, said that the charges being levied against the sport were unfair and unwarranted. They weren’t then, and, as the Alliance is showing, they aren’t now either.

Even though the downward age trend has halted and started to reverse itself, the training and preparation hasn’t, as shown by the remarkable consistency in the stories the gymnasts have told over the last four decades. There is significant overlap between Sey experienced as an elite in the early-to-mid 1980s to what the gymnasts from the past 15 years have described in their posts. The gymnasts may be older but they’re still being treated as though they’re young girls devoid of agency. Becky Downie, a longstanding member of the British team and the 2019 world silver medalist on bars, posted to social media about being 26 years old and having her ankle pain dismissed by the national team coaches, who accused her of being “mentally weak” and was told to push through it. Two weeks later, she broke at that ankle and had to undergo yet another surgery.

FIG has been slow to respond to the crises of the last four years. It took them until 2019, three years after the first allegations against Nassar were made public, to create the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation. And FIG’s officials still spend too much time talking about athlete welfare as a public relations problem, as Cervin observed in a paper on the relationship between FIG and the IOC. FIG president Morinori Watanabe said in 2019, “At this moment in time, the media and the public too often relate gymnastics to harassment...We must get away from this image in the global sporting community.”

When asked for comment, FIG responded that their reform efforts are sincere and ongoing. “First and foremost, we would like to stress that ‘safeguarding and protecting participants in Gymnastics’ are not empty words for us, but something we constantly fight for,” they wrote and referred me to Watanabe’s statement in response to the rise of the Alliance. FIG has just announced that it will host an online conference call about coaching abuse in October.

“There is some responsibility on their shoulders for the fact that this culture has persisted all around the world,” Pinches said, while noting that she wasn’t certain what their role should be in all of this.

Over the last couple of years, high ranking officials in FIG have made public statements that appeared to be dismissive of survivors’ abuse claims. Early last year, Liubou Charkashnya, president of FIG’s Athlete Commision, said that at least some of the Nassar survivors were primarily motivated by financial gain. And Nellie Kim, FIG vice president and one of the most powerful figures in women’s gymnastics, echoed similar sentiments and added that she wouldn’t open a gym in the U.S. because she worries about retaliation from athletes and parents.

When asked about Kim’s comments, while pointing out that she was speaking for herself and not the organization, FIG said of Kim’s response to Russian media “that the way her words were translated did not exactly reflect her thoughts.”

What Kim and Charkashyna’s comments make abundantly clear is the problematic culture that the Gymnast Alliance has spoken of doesn’t solely reside in training gyms or national governing bodies; it’s present in FIG as well. Of course it is. Why would the international federation be immune to the global culture of the sport? They have made this culture and been made by it.

“One of the issues in the sport is that the athletes have no real agency and no power,” Sey said. This is particularly ludicrous to her because, of all the players and stakeholders—coaches, judges, officials—the athletes are the only truly indispensable ones. You simply can’t have a sport without them. “Yet the only constituency that was commoditized and treated with absolutely zero care were the only ones [who were] essential.” However as we’ve seen with essential workers during the pandemic, being indispensable doesn’t mean you’re taken care of or protected or compensated properly. Being called “essential’ is coercive, a way to compel work or certain behavior. It does not, in and of itself, confer power. As always, in order to get power, you have to rise up and take it.

“I wrote that statement, I organized the initial little flick of the first domino, but that wouldn’t have been possible without everyone else,” Pinches said. She repeatedly emphasized to me that this was very much a team effort.

The dominos had already been set up by people like Sey, Moceanu, Mason (who had previously spoken about the abusive coaching she endured), the Nassar survivors, and many others. The dominoes are falling all over the world though it’s still too soon to tell what kind of changes the Alliance will lead to.

“At the end of the day, it needs to be easier for them to make real change even if it’s for the wrong reasons than it is to just protect themselves and just do, like, PR changes,” Pinches said. For that to happen, the gymnasts and their allies must apply continual, sustained pressure on institutions that would like to simply wait them out and placate them with platitudes and empty promises. “People get tired of speaking out and people move on,” Koehler said. “And sport relies on people getting tired.”

The gymnasts, however, don’t appear to be running out of steam. They seem determined to finish what they started at the end of June. Several former British gymnasts have announced that they are considering taking legal action against their federation.

“We won’t stop,” Pinches said.

This story was updated after publication to take note of Dr. Georgia Cervin’s research.