Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner for Sex Discrimination, Kate Jenkins, was not mincing words at the release of the culture review into gymnastics in Australia.
The review uncovered an environment where abuse — in all its guises — occurred because of accepted coaching practices, a focus on winning at all costs, and a complicated governance structure that is not suitable for effectively safeguarding children and young people.
“My view is all sports globally, but if I focus on Australia, all sports should look at this report,” Jenkins said.
The Human Rights Commission’s review found those risk factors included the power imbalance between coaches and athletes and an insufficient understanding from the sport itself of what constitutes child abuse, resulting in the silencing of athlete voices and an increased risk of harm.
All sports will be sent a condensed version of the report, titled Change the Routine.
The report found many current and former gymnasts, both men and women, used the term “grooming” when speaking of their experiences.
“The abuse and mistreatment many former athletes experienced had such a profound impact on their lives that they formed a sense of hatred and rejection towards the sport,” the report said.
‘Athletes suffer because sports mostly investigate themselves’
Sports globally are being asked how environments of abuse have been allowed to develop to the point of becoming entrenched.
Sport has no answer.
Athletes are speaking out in growing numbers, sometimes decades later, after having been ignored or silenced, often with the threat of non-selection to representative teams hanging over them.
Enquiries into gymnastics have been launched in countries such as the US, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
But it is not the only sport reckoning with its past.
Around the world, other sports such as swimming and football are also mired in historical allegations that have never suitably been addressed.
As each subsequent report is filed it becomes clear the failings are “systemic” and “institutional”.
Athletes suffer because sports mostly investigate themselves.
They are built on systems where conflicts of interest are prevalent, and policies and mechanisms for reporting and investigating complaints are outdated.
Australia’s federated sports model, with grassroots clubs feeding into state and territory bodies which themselves feed into the national body, is cumbersome, confusing, and often ill-equipped to deal efficiently with something as serious as abusive behaviour.
Not even the National Redress Scheme can offer support for those who suffer the worst kind of abuse, with some clubs unable to sign up because they cannot afford to compensate victims.
Risk is built into the current structure
The experience in gymnastics is that complaints are handled at the level at which they are made, with no requirement to escalate upwards or involve independent investigators.
In some cases, those charged with investigating allegations are volunteers, not experienced in dealing with issues of such a serious nature.
With systems and policies like these, inherent risk is inadvertently built into the structure of sport.
Kate Jenkins highlighted other areas that are also risk factors for all sports.
“That children play and participate in a whole range of sports across this country. That coaches have unique access. That the judging and the decision-making about who goes to the Olympics can sometimes be the same person that is determining complaints. That the federated system doesn’t always work together in a way that supports the individual athletes.”
If a report into the education department was released that found children and young people were not effectively being safeguarded and that complaints of abuse and harm were not being adequately and appropriately addressed, there would be an outcry.
Yet this is exactly what has been described in the Change the Routine review, in a sport where 91 per cent of its quarter of a million participants are under the age of 12.
Lawyer Adair Donaldson provides pro bono legal support for more than 50 gymnasts, and is acting for 11 in relation to potential claims as a result of abuse suffered in the sport.
The review’s findings came as no surprise to him.
“I think they [sports administrators] just keep on inheriting the baton,” Donaldson said.
“They think, ‘Well, this is the way it’s always been, this is the way it will always be in the future.’
“It seemed to me we were always chasing the next best thing … where was the flavour of the month in respect to the international coaches?
“And then we’d follow wherever they were achieving the results, not questioning the methods they were using to get those results.
“Why didn’t someone ask that question?
Gymnastics Australia to adopt complaints framework
Sport Integrity Australia (SIA), the government-funded agency with investigative powers, was recommended by the Australian Human Rights Commission as the appropriate independent body to which allegations of abuse in sport should be made.
During the AHRC’s gymnastics review, SIA received 35 abuse complaints resulting in seven investigations, which remain ongoing.
The chief executive of SIA, David Sharpe, says this is the wake-up call other sports need to make meaningful reform.
“Sport Integrity Australia has introduced a National Integrity Framework for all sports which includes an independent complaints handling model for sports,” he said.
“Given the findings of the report, I strongly encourage sports to adopt the National Integrity Framework to ensure the independent and transparent handling of complaints going forward.”
Gymnastics Australia says it will adopt all 12 recommendations although there is no timeframe, yet, in which to make the changes.
Nor have the changes been prioritised.
The exception being the unreserved apology already given by Gymnastics Australia’s president, Ben Heap.
“The report … references experiences from members of the gymnastics community of abuse, that are deeply concerning and heartbreaking,” he said yesterday.
“Gymnastics Australia unreservedly apologises to all athletes and family members who’ve had any form of abuse participating in our sport.”
When Gymnastics Australia engaged the AHRC to conduct the review last July, affected gymnasts said then they wanted one thing – systemic change to the sport, so those who come next are not left with the same psychological burden as those who came before.
The AHRC review, and Gymnastics Australia’s commitment to its recommendations, is the first step on what will be a painful path to change.
Not nearly as painful, though, as the memories of those whose courage has made it possible.