Gymnastics Australia engaged the Australian Human Rights Commission (the Commission) in August 2020 to conduct an independent review of culture and practice at all levels of the sport of gymnastics in Australia.
The Independent Review into Gymnastics in Australia (the Review) was requested by Gymnastics Australia following the release of the documentary ‘Athlete A’. The documentary sparked a global sharing of experiences of abuse in the sport, via social media, with several former athletes and parents of former athletes coming forward in Australia.
By engaging with members and former members across the gymnastics community in Australia, and undertaking a high-level evaluation of policy and procedures, the Review led to a comprehensive understanding of the culture of the sport, including systemic risk factors for child abuse and neglect, misconduct, bullying, abuse, sexual harassment and assault towards athletes. Some of these risk factors also exist in many other sports, including significant power disparities between athletes and coaches and administrators. However, the Commission found that unique facets of gymnastics, including the extremely high proportion of young female athletes, contribute to a high-risk environment for abuse and for the maintenance and reinforcement of negative societal stereotypes and ideals around gender.
Placing the voices of children and young people and their families at the centre, this report outlines the Commission’s key findings and presents 12 recommendations for whole of sport change. The implementation of the Commission’s recommendations requires engagement and action across all levels of the sport. Such action will be a step towards achieving transformative cultural change and ensuring that the human rights of gymnasts across Australia are upheld.
As a sport where the participants are predominantly young girls and women, there is an opportunity for gymnastics to play a societal role in driving gender equality and challenging stereotypes of how young women and girls should behave and appear. Gymnasts have always been strong, powerful and capable. It is time for gymnastics as a global sport to recognise and celebrate this fact.
The Commission also identified a ‘win-at-all-costs’ culture that prevailed across the sport and found that this created unacceptable risks for the safety and wellbeing of often very young gymnasts. Gymnastics at all levels of the sport—national, state and club—has a responsibility to put the wellbeing and safety of all athletes, particularly those who are children and young adults, at the forefront of everything it does. Effective cultural change for every athlete in every gym across the country will only be realised when strong leadership at all levels of the sport commit to a collaborative and holistic approach to addressing the challenges outlined in this report. Each section of the report focuses on a distinct aspect of the sport’s culture and includes analysis of the main identified challenges.
A cultural snapshot
Members of the gymnastics community in Australia demonstrated a clear love of the sport, particularly at the recreational level, and an appreciation of the fundamental skills it allows gymnasts to develop. However, in the data collected by the Review, such positives of the culture of gymnastics were overshadowed by negative experiences at elite levels. The gymnastics community in Australia frequently described the culture of gymnastics in Australia as ‘toxic’ and the Commission heard accounts of gendered treatment of athletes. The Commission also heard that there are variations in culture between different Gymsports and between different club and training environments, and experiences of bullying, harassment, abuse, neglect, racism, sexism and ableism within the sport, both from current and former athletes and other members of the gymnastics community in Australia. The Review identified a number of key cultural risk factors that cut across experiences of gymnastics in Australia and create an environment where abuse and mistreatment can thrive. These were: a ‘win-at-all-costs’ approach; the young age of female gymnasts and inherent power imbalances; a culture of control; and an overarching tolerance of negative behaviour.
Coaches play a significant role in the sport and in the lives of athletes, particularly at elite levels. They set the tone for engaging in gymnastics and have the power to shape the experience athletes have within the sport. The Commission heard that while many athletes have had positive experiences and relationships with their coaches, there was a persistent use of ‘authoritarian’ or highly disciplinary coaching styles. Many related this to a deeply held view throughout the sport that such styles were the best way to coach winning athletes, regardless of the impact on gymnasts’ health and wellbeing. The Review also identified issues and risk factors in the relationships between coaches, athletes and their parents, including those associated with coach and parent ambition, and in the accountability of clubs within the employment and supervision of coaches.
The Commission heard about significant negative experiences in the sport from current and former gymnasts and other members of the gymnastics community in Australia. Some discussed how the structure and expectations of the sport, including rigorous training loads for athletes from a young age, can heighten the vulnerability of athletes participating in the sport. The Commission also heard about a range of experiences of abuse and other harmful behaviours, including emotional and verbal abuse, physical abuse and medical negligence, sexual abuse, negative weight management practices and body shaming. The short and long-term impacts of these practices were reported to be profound, with recent former gymnasts and gymnasts who last trained in the 80s, 90s and 2000s sharing their experiences with the Review.
Complaints and investigations
The current suite of policies related to the safety and wellbeing of athletes, while comprehensive, is not actively and consistently implemented at all levels of the sport. The Commission heard that there is a lack of awareness and understanding of relevant policies across the gymnastics community in Australia, due to duplication and inconsistency, limited accessibility, and implementation challenges. Many also reported concerns about current processes for investigating and reporting child abuse and neglect, misconduct, bullying, sexual harassment and assault, citing confidentiality and a lack of transparency, lack of independence, fear of retribution and limited opportunities to escalate complaints or to have decisions reviewed.
Governance and structure
Gymnastics in Australia operates within a federated model, with state and territory associations functioning as separate entities, with their own respective boards. The Commission found that there were complications within this operating model, including: duplication and inconsistency of policies and procedures across the federation; challenges with the management of complaints; and perceived and real funding pressures with associated risks on organisational culture and athlete health and wellbeing.
Summary of findings and recommendations
The Commission has made five overarching key findings and 12 recommendations. These are summarised below.
Finding: Current coaching practices create a risk of abuse and harm to athletes. Additionally, hiring practices for coaching staff lack accountability and there are inconsistent policies and systems to regulate their behaviour.
Recommendation 1: Transform education to skills development for coaches
The Commission recommends that Gymnastics Australia and state and territory associations transform their approach from ‘educating’ coaches to upskilling them, including in holistic, athlete-centred coaching practices that safeguard children’s rights and form relationships based on mutual respect with athletes and their parents. The Commission recommends that all such initiatives for coaches be designed with input from relevant experts, including those outside of gymnastics, and focus on building a safe and healthy environment.
Recommendation 2: Strengthen coach engagement and accountability
The Commission also recommends measures to improve the engagement and accountability of coaches across all levels of the sport by:
- Establishing a coach mentoring network: The Commission recommends the establishment of a coach mentoring network to encourage knowledge and information sharing between coaches of different clubs, particularly at the recreational level where most athletes are participating. This could include identifying and recognising coaches who have a demonstrated record of healthy coaching practices. A particular aspect of this mentoring network should focus on young coaches, early in their careers.
- Developing a sport-wide coach register: The Commission recommends that a whole-of-sport register of coaches be developed, listing the current and previous location of employment for every coach working in the sport. Maintaining accurate details in the register would be a condition of coach and club accreditation. The register should be made accessible to accredited clubs, state and territory associations and Gymnastics Australia to verify references and employment history.
Recommendation 3: Develop a national social media policy
The Commission recommends that Gymnastics Australia develop a social media policy to be implemented across the sport, including by all state and territory associations and clubs. This policy should stipulate that the minimum age of engagement by coaches, judges, officials and staff with any athlete via social media is 18 years old. A child-friendly version of the policy should be developed in consultation with the proposed youth advisory councils (Recommendation 5).
Finding: There is an insufficient focus on understanding and preventing the full range of behaviours that can constitute child abuse and neglect in gymnastics.
Recommendation 4: Broaden the sport’s understanding of child abuse and neglect
While there is a comprehensive suite of education and training materials on child abuse, a number of these have a primary focus on sexual abuse. The Commission recommends that all staff, volunteers, parents and athletes be equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness on the nature, indicators and prevention of all forms of child abuse and neglect. This will ensure they can focus their activities on the prevention of child abuse and neglect, and are attuned to the risks and can facilitate ways for athletes to report abusive situations where necessary. Gymnastics Australia and all state and territory associations should consolidate their training materials and resources relating to child abuse and neglect and implement a consistent approach across the sport. This should be done collaboratively to enable consistency in messaging, ensuring all affiliated clubs receive the same training material and resources.
Finding: A focus on ’winning-at-all-costs’ and an acceptance of negative and abusive coaching behaviours has resulted in the silencing of the athlete voice and an increased risk of abuse and harm with significant short and long term impacts to gymnasts.
Recommendation 5: Encourage and promote athlete empowerment and participation
The Commission recommends Gymnastics Australia and all state and territory associations encourage and promote athlete empowerment and participation by:
- Establishing youth advisory councils at state, territory and national levels: Gymnastics Victoria has implemented a Youth Advisory Program made up of young gymnasts with a diverse range of experiences in the sport. The Commission recommends that Gymnastics Australia and all other state and territory associations implement youth advisory councils with the aim of voicing young gymnasts needs and concerns, including through engagement with the boards of state and territory associations and Gymnastics Australia.
- Conducting two-yearly surveys of all athletes: Gymnastics Australia should implement a two-yearly anonymous survey of all athletes across the sport with the support of an appropriate independent research body. Athletes across all affiliated clubs would take part in the survey, with mechanisms to confirm both their own and parental/guardian consent. Clubs, state and territory associations, Gymnastics Australia, and their associated boards would receive aggregated survey results highlighting areas of concern specific to their jursidicition. These results should be used to identify gaps or issues in service delivery, inform training and education initiatives and provide a feedback loop for ongoing improvement.
- Commissioning regular physical and mental health assessments: Affiliated clubs should commission independent quarterly physical and mental health assessments of athletes to identify early signs of injuries, burnout, mental ill-health and abuse.
Recommendation 6: Provide a formal acknowledgement and apology to all members of the gymnastics community in Australia who have experienced any form of abuse in the sport
The abuse and harm experienced by members of the gymnastics community in Australia over many decades is significant and has had deeply felt and long-lasting impacts. In line with a recommendation made through the Independent Review of Gymnastics New Zealand, the Commission recommends that a formal apology and acknowledgement be provided to members of the community who suffered physical, emotional, sexual, verbal and psychological abuse as a result of the actions and inactions of other members of the gymnastics community in Australia. The Commission recommends that Gymnastics Australia be responsible for delivering this apology, and encourages institutions who have run gymnastics programs over the previous four decades to consider issuing their own apology.
Finding: There is an ongoing focus in gymnastics on the ‘ideal body’, especially for young female athletes. This, in addition to inappropriate and harmful weight management and body shaming practices, can result in the development of eating disorders and disordered eating which continue long after the athlete has left the sport.
Recommendation 7: Develop a skills-based training and support program for all athletes to prevent and address eating disorders and disordered eating
The Commission recommends that a therapeutic and intervention-based program be developed and designed by an independent organisation, such as the InsideOut Institute or the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC), to be rolled out alongside current and planned education initiatives. The program should be delivered to athletes at an early age and focus on:
- developing self-esteem and self-worth outside of body image
- building the resilience and emotional and self-regulation capabilities of athletes.
Recommendation 8: Develop and refine resources relating to body image, weight management practices and eating disorders, to improve consistency and support effective implementation
The Commission recommends that Gymnastics Australia oversee the:
- Development of a protocol for responding to disclosures and signs of eating disorders: While there are a number of resources available at the national and state and territory levels of the sport aimed at increasing awareness and understanding of healthy eating, eating disorders and how to respond, it is recommended that an independent organisation such as the InsideOut Institute or the NEDC be commissioned to develop a protocol for staff and volunteers at all levels of the sport. The protocol should cover responding to disclosures of an eating disorder and signs of eating disorders, to ensure any practice is consistent across the sport and reflects current, best practice.
- Revisions to Gymnastics Australia’s Body Positive Guidelines and sport-wide implementation
The Commission recommends that any consent forms seek the consent from the athlete, in addition to the parent/guardian. It is recommended that the sport implement the Guidelines and associated materials at all levels of the sport.
Finding: Gymnastics at all levels has not appropriately and adequately addressed complaints of abuse and harm and are not effectively safeguarding children and young people. Contributing factors include a lack of internal expertise and resources and complicated governance structures.
Recommendation 9: All matters regarding child abuse and neglect, misconduct, bullying, sexual harassment, and assault be investigated externally of the sport
The Commission recommends that all matters regarding child abuse and neglect, misconduct, bullying, sexual harassment, and assault be investigated independently, externally of the sport, where possible and feasible. An external investigator and process will limit any potential, actual or perceived conflict of interest.
To realise this recommendation and address the identified resourcing issues within particular levels of the sport, with many Member Protection Information Officer positions (MPIOs) held by volunteers, the following two sub-recommendations are made:
- adopt Sport Integrity Australia’s (SIA) National Integrity Framework (NIF)[i] and associated policies and complaints process
- establish a full-time Complaints Manager position at Gymnastics Australia, in addition to the current integrity staffing complement.
It is recommended that a child-friendly version of the NIF that combines the NIF’s associated policies, specifically, the Complaints, Disputes and Discipline Policy, Child Safeguarding Policy (CSP) and Member Protection Policy (MPP), be designed in consultation with SIA and the recommended youth advisory councils (Recommendation 5).
For matters not eligible or referred to SIA’s complaints process, the Commission recommends that the current practice—that matters are considered and handled at the level they occur—be reconsidered and that independent, external investigators be engaged to manage such matters and, where this is not possible, that they be escalated to a higher-level within the sport.
Recommendation 10: Establish interim and ongoing oversight over relevant complaints at all levels of the sport
It is recommended that a form of independent oversight over the handling of complaints at all levels of the sport be introduced immediately while the adoption of the NIF is being finalised. Given that some matters will not be eligible to be referred to SIA’s complaints process, it is also recommended that ongoing oversight continue for complaints managed internally within the sport, including for matters where an independent, external investigator has been engaged as stipulated in the preceding recommendation.
Recommendation 11: Establish a toll-free triage, referral and reporting telephone service operated by SIA
The Commission recommends that SIA consider expanding their current 1300 number to provide a triage, referral and reporting service. Such a service will allow gymnastics and other sports not only to make an anonymous report, but will also provide athletes and other relevant individuals with timely supports and relevant information regarding available opportunities for investigation and redress.
Recommendation 12: Align current governance with Sport Australia’s Sport Governance Principles more consistently and effectively
The Commission has distilled Sport Australia’s Sport Governance Principles into four areas related to successful governance within the current federated model: effective partnerships and collaboration; robust engagement and participation; consistency and accessibility; and accountability and transparency. The Commission recommends that Gymnastics Australia and all state and territory associations work collaboratively to:
- revise board engagement with child safety matters, including oversight of child-safety audits (to be undertaken at all levels of the sport—national, state and club)
- develop shared goals and outcomes for matters relating to child safety at all levels of the sport
- prioritise athlete voices and needs at the board level
- adopt and implement SIA’s child safe recruitment and screening resources
- deliver consistent and ongoing online and face-to-face MPIO training across all levels of the sport
- establish a formal mechanism to facilitate ongoing collaboration between personnel responsible for child safety and child protection at all levels of the sport
- address obstacles to escalating relevant complaints from clubs to state and territory associations and Gymnastics Australia, where appropriate, including determinations regarding employment.
[i] While it is understood that the National Integrity Framework is referred to as ‘the framework’ in some relevant documentation, the acronym NIF has been used in this report to avoid confusion with other frameworks discussed.