How To Change The Culture Of Gymnastics: An Academic Weighs In

A Q&A with Dr. Natalie Barker-Ruchti

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Last week, I wrote a story about the Gymnast Alliance, the global gymnast human rights movement that originated in Great Britain in response to the Netflix documentary Athlete A, for VICE. I spoke to several amazing people for the story, including 1986 U.S. national champion Jennifer Sey, 2012 British Olympian and former UCLA Jennifer Pinches, and former Belgian elite Dorien Motten. But as often happens, not every interview makes into the final published story due to length considerations. I am pretty well-known among editors for submitting drafts that are way too long. I submitted a 5,000 word draft for the 2000 Olympic all-around clusterfuck story for Defector and an unnamed editor was, um, taken aback by its length. But whose fault was it really? She didn’t set a word limit for me. It’s like she forgot who I am.

Unfortunately this tendency means that you guys didn’t get to read the words of Dr. Natalie Barker-Ruchti, an associate Professor in sport management and sport coaching at the School of Health Sciences, Örebro University, Sweden. Her research and publications have focused on the culture of gymnastics and the impact it has on the athletes. In addition to her academic work, Barker-Ruchti also has an extensive background in the sport, both as a gymnast and later as a coach.

She’s also one of the many academics involved with the International Socio-Cultural Research Group on Women’s Gymnastics (ISCWAG), which published a manifesto this summer with eight steps/actions that various gymnastics institutions can take in order to reduce harm and protect athletes from abuse.

I thought that what Dr. Barker-Ruchti had written to me was insightful despite the fact that some of questions could’ve been phrased better. (Especially the first one.) I asked her if I could share the email interview exchange we had done for VICE in the newsletter. She gave me permission to do so. Here it is, very lightly edited for clarity.

Dvora Meyers: You mentioned in your interview with Luba (over at Gymnovosti) that you had started out wanting to be a coach but then thought, after spending some time coaching, that you weren't harsh enough. Can you describe some of the coaching practices that you were witnessing during your time as a coach and also what you saw during the course of your research?

Natalie Barker-Ruchti: It was not so much what I saw in other coaches that made me feel that I wasn’t harsh (enough). It was more the harsh coaching that I had witnessed as a gymnast that hadn’t sat well with me. At one particular gym, some of my peer gymnasts were constantly being yelled at, belittled, and even sent home. The coach targeted certain gymnasts, and I am not sure why. Many of them were crying a lot. I had always felt really bad for them. When I was coaching in NZ [New Zealand], I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by two positive and child-centered coaches. This type of coaching I could identify with. I wanted the gymnasts I was working with to learn and achieve, but I didn’t want for them to experience what my peer gymnasts had experienced back in the days when I was training.

What I saw in my ethnographic research, and also what former gymnasts described to me in research interviews, was worse than what I had witnessed as a gymnast. The emotional/psychological and physical abuse in the form of yelling, belittling, intimidation, blaming, overtraining, etc. was incessant and it had a meanness to it that was wrong. It was really hard to observe, but as a researcher, my obligation was to observe, not to interfere. I was there to document and explain the realities of contemporary (sub)elite gymnasts. But it was very hard to sit at the gym, watch the abuse, and record it into my recording device.

Later, in research on who athletes become, I also started to hear from the athletes what their experiences had done to them long-term. Some of the stories were disturbing and difficult to hear. At that stage of my research career, I wasn’t coaching anymore, but it made it even more clear to me that coaches have a huge long-term influence on gymnasts, and with that a massive responsibility.

DM: I'm really fascinated by the project you discussed called "Coming of Age," in which you interviewed older gymnasts about how they navigated the transition from teen elite to adult elite athlete and how they negotiated new terms with their coaches to have more control over their training. Is there anything in their experiences that all gymnasts can take and implement in order to reset the terms of their "contract" with their coaches, regardless of age?

NBR: It is not easy to identify a specific ‘something’ that gymnasts could adopt. The gymnasts’ ability to negotiate the terms of their training/lives was affected by a number of interrelated changes, including their growing up, some life experience they had gained, often some time to reflect and do other things because of injury-related timeouts, and also a coach that was actually willing to listen and adjust to the gymnast’s changing needs. This transitioning is very important, and I mean here for both the coach and the gymnast. Instead of sticking to the same coaching protocols, it is really important that WAG organizations and stakeholders (i.e., coaches) strategically create environments that allow for gymnasts to grow up, gain life experiences, and reflection. The coach-gymnast relationship cannot stay the same, and certainly as child athletes grow into adult athletes, the relationship must evolve, or else the gymnasts will leave the sport (the gymnasts interviewed in the Coming of Age research clearly said this). It is this that the gymnasts described, a transition that affected the coaches as well as themselves.  

But of course, I am not suggesting that it is ok for coaches to be controlling and authoritarian (and abusive!) during a gymnast’s childhood. It is important to understand that the positive effects we heard from the older gymnasts we interviewed in the Coming of Age research also applies to younger gymnasts.

DM: The fact that you need to specialize very young and peak very young are two of the very deep-seated assumptions in women's gymnastics. What are some of the other assumptions that we need to work to counter? 

NBR: We need to move away from seeing gymnasts (and athletes) as commodities that can be consumed. I mean here consume to make money (e.g., WAG organizations; sponsors), consume to establish/develop careers (e.g., coaches), and consume to be entertained (e.g., fans, spectators). Gymnasts are human beings and we need to ensure that their rights and needs are recognized. This move away from commodifying requires a number of changes, both at the organizational and coaching levels, but also [at] the media level.

Also, there is the issue of gender and femininity. Historically, WAG was included in the Olympic Games because it was assumed appropriate for women. The apparatus, clothing, performance requirements, and the music on floor are examples that demonstrate this feminization. As WAG changed to a sport that was predominantly performed by children (during the 1970s), this feminization took on a new meaning. The child gymnast, often wearing a white leotard, protected by a male coach, performing difficult acrobatic movements effortlessly, often playfully and while smiling, represented innocence and cuteness. It was able to ‘hide’ the harsh realities of training and coaching, the difficulty of the performances, and the risks involved. The pixie appearance charmed everybody, and in so doing, ‘hid’ the harsh realities and abuse quite effectively

A feminist perspective might also suggest that the pixie gymnast has a soft pornographic touch, something within the context of consumption, may be linked to sexual phantasy and abuse.

In general, though, the feminization of child gymnasts, when considered as part of how gender constructs women as obedient and objects of consumption/pleasure, needs to be countered. Gymnasts need to be represented for what they are: strong, powerful, extremely able (not just at the elite level), and with a voice.

Lastly, in research at least, but perhaps also elsewhere, abuse is often associated with sexual abuse. This is changing, and much attention is now paid to culture and emotional/psychological and physical abuse. This focus on non-sexual forms of abuse is really important as these types of abuses are widespread, deep-seated, very damaging, and precursors to sexual abuse.

DM: Now to the Gymnast Alliance. What do you think is happening at this particular moment that has led to the spread of this uprising around the globe? 

NBR: I think it is a result of a combination of events that have resulted in the uprising: the #MeToo movement has ‘normalized’ women speaking out about abuse for a number of years now, and this calling out of abuse is widely reported; social media offers an accessible way to speak publicly and to speak to large audiences; the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal has brought much to light, including what abusive coaching/training is. As this scandal was broadcasted around the world, I am guessing that gymnasts started to realize that their experiences were also abusive. Athlete A provided additional confirmation of what abuse is. And lastly, it may be that COVID-19, because current gymnasts and everybody around the world had downtime to reflect over their past and current lives, has something to do with it. Then I think once gymnasts not related to the USAG sex abuse scandal started to speak out, others found courage and inspiration to follow suit. Research into hashtag movements shows that speaking out about abuse can create connection, affirmation, and empowerment.

DM: The focus thus far has been mainly on national governing bodies but the problem of abuse in gymnastics is clearly global given the widespread use of the #gymnastalliance hashtag. What role does FIG [International Gymnastics Federation] or other global organizations have to play in changing the cultural practices of international gymnastics? What sort of interventions could FIG implement?

NBR: I would like to suggest that the FIG and other global organizations are standing at a crossroads—they can either adopt some weak/superficial changes to tick the box of athlete welfare, or they can really change things. I hope that they will choose the latter, even though I completely understand that cultural change is a huge challenge. But I would like to propose that the FIG and other global organizations have been given a massive opportunity to demonstrate courage, professionalism, and humanity. Wouldn’t such an image also be hugely marketable?

I am also thinking that the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games could offer a suitable occasion to demonstrate these characteristics. After all, the Tokyo Games are supposed to be the sustainable games. There is much that could be achieved here, which could really give sport the positive social/global status it actually seeks.