The past two weeks saw the gymnastics abuse scandal go truly global.

"I am scared to share my story, but at some point, someone has to stand up for the athletes," Commonwealth silver medallist and former Australian national champion Mary-Anne Monckton wrote on Friday. She detailed a "normalised" culture of emotional abuse, including being body shamed and "yelled at until I cried".

"Gymnastics," she said, "is without a doubt, one of the hardest sports in the world, and it's made even harder by harsh coaches and, at times, ignorant national sporting organisations."

Monckton's story reads familiar after two weeks of eerily similar revelations emerging from the sport in the United Kingdom.

Advertisement

This week Olympic bronze medallist Amy Tinkler revealed she retired because of her negative experiences in the British elite programme. Just over a week ago, Team GB gymnasts Becky and Ellie Downie concurred that they also suffered in abusive coaching environments.

They are not alone, and just as British Gymnastics has been engulfed by allegations of a "culture of fear", so too has there been a trickle down effect to other parts of the world.

Great Britain's Amy Tinkler in action at the 2016 Olympic Games. Photo / Photosport
Great Britain's Amy Tinkler in action at the 2016 Olympic Games. Photo / Photosport

Monckton became the first of the Australian elite contingent to speak out, and last week Switzerland's gymnastics federation suspended its head of elite sport amid an independent investigation into abuse claims, after two of their top coaches were fired in June.

It all began, though, with Netflix's Athlete A, released last month. The documentary details the negative coaching experiences of gymnasts in the US, and USA Gymnastics' alleged role in a cover up which made girls vulnerable to sexual predator and team doctor Larry Nassar's abuse.

Mark Alesia, a journalist at the Indianapolis Star in the USA who was part of the team who first broke the story in 2016, says Athlete A has given gymnasts worldwide a voice.

"It just shows the power of film and the power of a documentary," Alesia says. "Because our reporting has been out there for four years almost, but it was the documentary that seems to have touched this off and for that I'm proud."

On Friday UK Sport and Sport England took responsibility for the independent review that will investigate the claims being made against British Gymnastics coaches, and evaluate the governing body's responsibility. A helpline is also being set up by the British Athlete Commission and the NSPCC to help provide a safe space for gymnasts to report historic or current abuse.

But as much as this story has steamrolled into formal proceedings and investigations in just over a week, this will have no quick fix.

Advertisement

Looking stateside, though Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for his crimes back in 2018, there remain unresolved issues beyond the abhorrent sexual abuse. The independent review into USA Gymnastics' duty of care failures took 18 months, and still the national governing body is causing outrage, the monetary compensation they proposed to survivors earlier this year widely criticised.

Alesia says, for this reason, he suspects closure is way off for emotional and physical abuse survivors here, but what will change more immediately is "awareness".

"Look at what we've been through here, it's been almost four years and US senators are trying to get to the bottom of why the FBI failed so badly [when they were originally alerted to Nassar case], and just over last weekend we had another report of [lewdness with a minor] charges against a USA Gymnastics coach.

"To the survivors' credit, they keep pushing and pushing to get to the bottom of it, [but] it still feels like it's not close to being over. That's why I think what's happening in the UK is probably a long way from over.

"Having said that, I think that from about six months into our reporting, parents started understanding what could be going on and gyms were understanding. This idea of gyms keeping parents away from watching workouts, no, that's not how you do it. There's much more awareness, but the wheels of justice turn slowly."

Dr Misia Gervis, a former British rhythmic gymnastics coach turned sports psychologist, says the past week has exposed a truth she has known for decades: that an overhaul of gymnastics' coaching of children needs to happen for there to be real change.

Advertisement

"I had a masters student who did her research working with a gymnastics coach over a period of a couple of months, trying to retrain and reeducate her," Gervis says. "Mid-way through the programme, what was so sad was the coach said, 'I now understand what I shouldn't say, but I don't know what I should say'.

"What that shows me is that when behaviour is normalised, when you have lived it and it is reinforced constantly, who is teaching you a different way to do it? Coaches have to understand the emotional impact and the psychological vulnerability they create by constantly humiliating people or ignoring them."

Subscribe to Premium

Gervis says for this cultural shift to happen, coaches at the top level must be the first to receive a "re-education", including how to develop positive gymnast-coach relationships and understanding the perils of things like forced physical exertion, where gymnasts are punished through extreme physical activity.

"If I was in charge, I would mandate all of those elite coaches first of all go on a positive coaching and relearning course. I'd start there, because they're often the coaches coaching the next generation of coaches.

"You look around the people who are the pillars of the sport, the experts, they can't teach that because they don't know it. The people who are in it, they replicate [behaviours] and nobody is challenging that, because they want the medals. And at what price? The price we're paying is these damaged kids, and for some of them that will be long-lasting."

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone elseis in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

Advertisement
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
https://www.lifeline.org.nz/services/suicide-crisis-helpline
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202

• NATIONAL ANXIETY 24 HR HELPLINE: 0800 269 4389

- Daily Telegraph UK