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Climate of fear and retribution in Gymnastics NZ, report finds

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

Female gymnast Source: Pinterest: Eeileen Langsley

By Felicity Reid of rnz.co.nz

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

Ten overarching areas of concern were 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 over 200 respondents.

Athletes and parents 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 described feeling "powerless to intervene" when they did witness "poor behaviour" out of fear of 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 noted.

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".

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", was criticised by the review panel which suggested forming an athlete commission or union for the sport.

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

The coaches have the ability to influence generations of gymnasts positively or negatively, the review said.

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

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

Female artistic and rhythmic gymnasts 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 raised concerns about a requirement to train and compete in a leotard which made them feel vulnerable or embarrassed - especially during menstruation.

The review also highlighted 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 said a lack of funding could hinder the implementation of some of the recommendations, but gymnastics was not the only sport in New Zealand facing financial constraints.

Among the panel's recommendations were:

  • 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 there are qualified investigators 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 well-being of gymnasts
  • Create a confidential pathway between current elite athletes and former athletes to allow issues to be shared and advanced without fear
  • Ensure there is no conflict of interest in judging appointments

Gymnastics New Zealand planned 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.

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

"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 had 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".