Australia

'You can't step out of line': Medals come at a price for gymnasts

Olivia Vivian at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

Olivia Vivian at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.Credit:James Brickwood

Exhaustion had set in long before the last day of the Australian women’s gymnastics team’s 2018 national camp, the final preparation for the World Gymnastics Championships in Doha, Qatar.

After nine straight days of rigorous twice-daily training sessions, gymnasts told coaches and support staff they “had no energy left”, Rianna Mizzen, a 2018 Commonwealth Games medallist and Olympic hopeful, wrote in a recent Facebook post. Nevertheless the workout proceeded as planned.

“Our input was mostly ignored and during that training session I had a serious accident on floor, resulting in an ACL rupture,” Mizzen recounted. “I knew as soon as this happened my lifelong goal was suddenly gone, because of an injury that I believe was the result of being overworked and one that could have been prevented.”

The Netflix documentary Athlete A, which explores how gymnastics’ culture of silence and submission allowed abuse to flourish in the United States, has prompted more than two dozen former Australian elite gymnasts to share their stories, adding to an international clamour for change within the sport.

In a chorus of social media statements they describe a culture of physical and emotional abuse directed at mainly adolescent women. At the national team level, yelling, body shaming, disordered eating and being forced to train while injured or exhausted came with the territory, they say.

“I have had some terrible experiences at major international competitions and national training camps between 2006-2012 that I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” two-time Olympian Georgia Bonora wrote on Instagram.

Rianna Mizzen as a member of Australia's women's artistic gymnastics team in 2016.

Rianna Mizzen as a member of Australia's women's artistic gymnastics team in 2016.Credit:Joe Armao

After struggling to perform a skill at a camp when she was 14, Paige James, the first Indigenous Australian to make the national team, was “screamed at that I was a pathetic excuse of a person, I was a disgrace to gymnastics, a disgrace to my family and I was a disgrace to the whole Aboriginal community”, she wrote on Instagram, and has since been removed.

Former junior team member Amelia McGrath compared elite gymnastics to having an emotionally abusive boyfriend. “You love it more than anything, but you just know it’s causing you pain,” she wrote on Instagram.

Going back to the 1980s, Australia’s ambitions of building a world-class gymnastics program led to the adoption of coaching practices that, while harsh, were seen as necessary for a team that aspired to compete with the world’s best. In 1995 and again in 2018, challenges to the system led to formal investigations into training practices at national centres, but concrete change has been slow to arrive.

“There’s training hard and helping your athlete get the most out of themselves, but then there’s also a very fine line that can be crossed into abusive territory,” said Mary-Anne Monckton, a five-time Australian champion who won two silver medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. "A lot of girls, some 20 years later, still didn’t realise that that was abuse. None of us recognised it because it wasn’t just happening to us. It was happening to everybody.”

The catalysts

Women’s gymnastics was not always the realm of teenagers. But at the Olympic Games in 1972 and again in 1976, the dazzling success of two young gymnasts, 17-year-old Olga Korbut of the USSR and 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci of Romania, captured the world’s attention, setting a new standard for female gymnasts in the process.

Georgia Bonora at a training session at the AIS in 2012.

Georgia Bonora at a training session at the AIS in 2012.Credit:Colleen Petch

Small and slight, Korbut and Comaneci seemed living proof that prepubescent women were ideal for performing the increasingly risky elements demanded on vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor. As a result female gymnasts, who once reached the peak of their careers somewhere in their mid-20s, were suddenly much younger when they began competing at international level.

In Australia scouts began inviting girls as young as eight who displayed potential to live and train at the AIS. Once installed, they spent up to 46 hours per week in the gym, according to the 1994 documentary Poetry In Motion.

Top foreign coaches, many from Russia and China, accepted invitations to come and help develop the team, and within a few years Australia was on an upward trajectory. From 16th in the world in 1989, Australia had climbed to sixth at the 1991 World Championships. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, they qualified for the team final for the first time.

Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci was the star at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci was the star at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.Credit:Fairfax Archives

Training at the AIS could be difficult, but tough love was revered as a mark of quality and a necessary component of success.

But to an increasing number of people it went over the line. In 1995, a group of parents levelled more than 160 claims of inappropriate training procedures at the AIS, alleging that gymnasts had been hit, kicked, deprived of water during workouts and verbally abused. The subsequent investigation, conducted by sports law specialist Hayden Opie, vindicated the AIS.

Between 2002 and 2010, Australia soared to new heights. The team won World bronze in 2003 and a host of Commonwealth Games medals, including three consecutive team golds. Monette Russo took all-around bronze at the 2005 World Championships in Melbourne and in 2010 Lauren Mitchell became the country’s first individual world champion, taking gold on the floor exercise.

But medals came at a price.

“You learn quite quickly,” said Olivia Vivian, “there is one way of doing it, and you can’t step out of line.”

When Vivian joined the elite track at the Western Australia Institute of Sport at age nine, she discovered that unlike at her old club gym, questioning coaches was frowned upon. Gymnasts who cried got sent out. If her mother spoke up on her daughter’s behalf, Vivian said, she suffered for it at practice the next day.

Like many, Vivian, who went on to compete at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, rationalised harsh treatment as the cost of a ticket to the Olympics.

With government funding hinging on good results at international competitions, coaches were under pressure to get good results, and it trickled down to the athletes. The year Vivian turned 16, “management told me I had to make the World Championship team, otherwise we’d lose funding and the program would shut down”.

Vivian’s love for the sport vanished, but with the 2008 Olympics tantalisingly close, she made the decision to stick it out. “Once I decided that the Olympics was my dream, everything just seemed normal; this was the normal procedure to get there,” said Vivian. “To me, these were all things you just had to do if you wanted to succeed. You wanted to fit that mold and that criteria, and you conformed.”

Gazing around the training halls at each of the three World Championships she competed in between 2011 and 2015, Monckton saw gymnasts from other nations harangued just as much as the Australians were. That gymnasts from other countries seemed to fare no better was further validation that severe treatment was normal, she said.

Mary-Anne Monckton, a five-time Australian champion who won two silver medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She is now a coach.

Mary-Anne Monckton, a five-time Australian champion who won two silver medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She is now a coach.

“Yes, military-style training did yield success,” she said, “but at what cost?”

Now 25 and a coach in her own right, Monckton feels she would have performed better had she received proper encouragement. "I feel that I never really lived up to my full potential in competitions because if a coach said one negative thing it would shoot my confidence down, and I wasn't able to perform the way I could in training,” she said.

The drive for change

The intensity that once permeated the AIS has waned in recent years. In 2016, Australia did not qualify a full gymnastics? team to the Olympic Games for the first time since 1988.

At last autumn’s World Championships in Stuttgart, where the top 12 teams made the Olympic cut-off, Australia finished 13th, a mere 1.077 points short of the final Tokyo Olympics team berth.

In the weeks following Athlete A’s release, well-known gymnasts from New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, the United States and several other nations have publicly alleged abusive treatment. The methods used to produce champions, they say, are gymnastics’ own private pandemic.

“These coaches that demonstrate this behaviour have never been held accountable for the damage they have done. They still continue to coach in the sport, praised for their results, their reputations unharmed,” 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Alexandra Eade wrote in an impassioned Instagram statement. “The only thing that matters to the coaches is results - and they will flog the athletes until they break to achieve them.”

The emotional damage, many say, has followed them into their lives beyond the sport. But many have also spoken of their deep love for gymnastics, saying that it provided them with incredible experiences and molded them into strong people. Some remain close with their former coaches.

Alexandra Eade as a 13-year-old gymnast in the 2014 Olympic squad.

Alexandra Eade as a 13-year-old gymnast in the 2014 Olympic squad.Credit:Chris Hopkins

On July 30 the Australian Human Rights Commission announced it would conduct an independent review, led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, on gymnastics in Australia to better understand why alleged abuse went unreported.

Gymnastics Australia chief Kitty Chiller issued an open letter to the gymnastics community saying they had ''zero tolerance'' for any form of abuse in the sport: ''We will continue to work tirelessly to uphold policies, education and behaviours to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all members, especially young children accessing our programs and services.''

The association has also laid out plans for a new foundation course to be required for all members, developed by a group that includes gymnasts who have shared their stories.

Meanwhile Vivian, a contestant on Australian Ninja Warrior this year, says: ''When you do understand and assess it, I truly don’t believe that coaches are bad people.

“I think there’s just been decades of education surrounding styles that we haven’t seen the results and the repercussions of until now.”

Jade Sharp, who as Jade Davidson was selected to the 1996 Olympic team, wrote on Instagram that becoming a coach has helped her appreciate why coaches employ tough methods - but also why change needs to happen.

“As a child I used to wonder how the adults around me could see what was happening and not say or do something,” Sharp wrote. “As an adult, I understand some of their potential reasons, but I’m that adult now.”

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