Instead Of The Olympics, We Got Ourselves A Reckoning On Abuse In Gymnastics

The most important competition on the four-year gymnastics calendar—the 2020 Olympic Games—were supposed to start in Tokyo today. (Or yesterday. I don’t know how time zones work.) Anyway, a year ago, we all thought we’d be watching Simone Biles win her second consecutive Olympic all-around gold, the first woman to do it since 1968 when Vera Caslavska, one of my personal favorites, did it in Mexico City. But due to the pandemic, the Games have been postponed to 2021, and even those are looking...iffy.

What we got instead of the Olympics is a glut of content that was timed to be released right around the Games. First, there was Athlete A, released about a month ago on Netflix, which delved into the culture of abuse in USA Gymnastics that led to Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of gymnasts. And then last week, ESPN released their latest 30 for 30 podcast, Heavy Medals, which focuses on the coaching careers of Martha and Bela Karolyi both in Romania and the United States and their problematic coaching practices to put it euphemistically. I’m sure there’s still more content coming.  

We were supposed to watch and listen and read all of this content adjacent to the gymnastics competition at the Olympics and it was probably supposed to inform our viewing. We were supposed to marvel at the acrobatics and ask “At what cost?” To admire the beauty and wonder what lurks behind it. That’s what was supposed to happen but I don’t think it would’ve played out that way for most people. Humans are great at compartmentalizing and we’re also highly distractible. We can listen to the gymnasts’ horrific stories one minute, and the next watch other gymnasts, no doubt subject to similar treatment, flipping onscreen without truly connecting the dots. I know I’m guilty of this sort of thing, and I’m sure others are as well. (Or maybe you are all better people than I am. Let me know in the comments.) Watching Athlete A and listening to Heavy Medals at a time when many of us find our lives turned upside down and when the long anticipated Games has been postponed is probably the best possible moment for us to absorb the messages in these pieces.

But perhaps more significant than all of us consuming this content without an Olympic chaser, it’s the athletes themselves getting a chance to watch Athlete A and listen to Heavy Medals without the Games looming. Due to the global pandemic, many gymnasts spent weeks, if not longer, out of the gym. This might be the first time they’ve had any physical and emotional distance from gymnastics. They have both time and distance to watch something like Athlete A and reflect back on their own experiences in a way that perhaps they hadn’t done before. (I grant that this is pure speculation on my part, but it’s my newsletter and I’ll speculate if I want to.)

What is abundantly clear is that Athlete A has had an impact that its most recent predecessor didn’t have. When Erin Lee Carr’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, it was generally well-received, judging by what I saw from reviews and responses online, but that appeared to be the end of it. It came and it went. This is not a knock on that film, which I must admit I haven’t seen; it followed the trajectory of basically every other well-executed sports documentary. 

But something altogether different is happening with Athlete A. It seems to be sparking a very public uprising of gymnasts, both current and former, against abuse in their sport, and has led to a long-overdue reckoning with abuse. The current movement really seemed to take off with British gymnast and 2019 world silver medalist on the uneven bars, Becky Downie. After sending several tweets about her reaction to Athlete A and abuse of gymnasts without diving into her own experience, she tweeted this:

What came next was an onslaught of stories from gymnasts about the abuse they endured during their careers.

These stories were being collected under the hashtag #gymnastalliance. This is the first tweet I found attached to that hashtag:

The person doing the tweeting is Catherine Lyons, a former standout British junior gymnast. Lyons, in particular, was known for her beautiful work on the floor exercise where she won the junior European title in 2014, performing to Des’ree’s “I’m Kissing You.” (All of you readers who were teen girls at a particular point in time will recognize it as the love theme from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.) 

Lyons was a favorite among gymnastics fans for her expressive routines, which are a pretty rare find these days in the sport. She was expected to contend for a spot on the British squad for the 2016 Olympics but she got injured, underwent surgery, and then sort of faded from view. There were rumors that her coach had been abusive, but no concrete details emerged. 

Until now. Lyons spoke to ITV about how her former coach had treated her during her gymnastics career. She spoke of being starved at camps; of being yelled at constantly; and of being hit with a stick. She described one incident in which her coach locked her in a cupboard when she messed up during practice.

This is actually not the first time this last anecdote has had a public airing. Back in 2017, a Guardian story referenced “one incident alleged to have involved one young athlete shut inside a cupboard at a gym for over an hour after making a mistake with a routine” but did not name either Lyons or her coach. From the article, it is clear that several parents tried to raise the alarm about Lyons’ coach well before 2017, but it doesn’t appear that British Gymnastics took the allegations seriously. (Apparently, this coach was also reported in 2009, when Lyons was just 9 years old.)

Instead of going to the Olympics or world championships, Lyons ended up in intensive therapy to address the psychological scars she has been left with. ITV also spoke to 2000 British Olympian Lisa Mason, who among other horrors, said that her coach put astroturf under the bars as a way of “encouraging” her to keep her feet up lest she burn them.

These two stories were only the beginning. The statement that Lyons tweeted was then tweeted by one ex-GB gymnast after another: Danusia Francis, Ruby Harrold, Charlie Fellows, Jenny Pinches—just to name a few. Some of the male British gymnasts tweeted as well, guys like Dominick Cunningham, James Hall, and Olympic gold medalist Max Whitlock. Many started attaching their own personal stories of their time in the sport to the hashtag. And there were more news accounts of abuse in British gymnastics and they’re still coming. All of the stories share common features: of being berated and belittled; of being shamed about their weight; of being forced to train through injuries. 

Amy Tinkler, GB’s only individual medalist in women’s gymnastics in Rio—she won the bronze on floor exercise—came out with a statement saying that her retirement from elite sport had nothing to do with an injury but due to the coaching abuse she had endured. I’m sure that Tinkler’s is not the only story of a career cut short by abuse.

The stories are coming from other gymnastics disciplines, such as rhythmic, and even from other sports, such as figure skating. And athletes from other countries are also coming forward. #GymnastAlliance is beginning to look like something akin to a movement. This is not yet a union—I wrote about the potential for a gymnast union in the U.S. last year—but it is inspiring to watch from afar as the gymnasts organize themselves to address what amounts to unacceptable workplace conditions. The gymnasts have realized that their institutions have failed them and that they have to work collectively in order to get things to change. 

British Gymnastics, in response to the alliance and the media attention the gymnasts’ stories, said they were going to conduct an independent investigation. They have also lost one of their corporate sponsors, the Cartoon Network.

Jane Allen, the CEO of British Gymnastics, has said she’s “appalled and ashamed” to learn about the abuse that many of the gymnasts under her jurisdiction have endured.  Many have called on her to resign.

Her reaction, however, was very different when it came to similar allegations in 2008, back when she was in charge of Australian gymnastics. Here’s what Allen had to say in 2008 in response to Jennifer Sey’s memoir that told many of the same stories that British gymnasts have been telling for the last few weeks on social media: 

Gymnastics Australia is dismayed at former US gymnast Jennifer Sey’s critical view of the gymnastics world and the cloud that it casts over the high performance programs, coaches and athletes training and competing in the sport in Australia.

No one is denying that the goals for elite gymnasts are difficult to achieve and that the athletes require outstanding commitment, hard work and sacrifice to succeed. The athletes who take up this challenge are gifted. Gymnasts within our national high performance program receive the best possible support from Gymnastics Australia and from within our national and state institute programs. The athletes’ welfare is paramount and is an important factor in achieving their dreams. ”

Jane Allen, CEO, Gymnastics Australia

It was acceptable to say this back in 2008; not so much anymore.

I asked Sey about why she thought all of these stories from British gymnasts (and beyond) were coming out now in response to Athlete A in our Q&A from a couple of weeks ago. This is how she responded: 

I don’t know why this is the moment. I think it has been building, and somewhat inevitable, for years. But I think having a wide viewership that just says “NO this is not ok” to some extent makes it impossible for the community to deny it any longer.

This reckoning has been a long time coming but is simultaneously sudden and unexpected.

All of our lives have been disrupted in both major and minor ways. Our daily routines have been completely upended. The way we interact with one another—if we interact with one another—has been dramatically altered. We’ve been seeing that things that we considered inevitable, events like weddings and graduations, are not. And one of those inevitabilities that actually isn’t is the Olympics. 

It’s hard to imagine something like #GymnastAlliance happening with the Olympics right around the corner. Some of the gymnasts participating in this movement, gymnasts like Beckie and Ellie Downie, are still active and vying for spots on the British team. Would they be able to participate in this movement while doing final preparations for the biggest competitions of their lives? That would probably be too difficult for them. Right before a competition like the Olympics, you have to stay in your bubble. 

But now we have an Olympic shaped hole in this month’s calendar and the gymnasts are determined to fill it with their stories. Without the Games, we can and should finally give them our undivided attention.