The Abusive Culture of Gymnastics: How Little Girls and Olympic Gymnasts are Probably More Similar Than They’d Like

The Abusive Culture of Gymnastics: How Little Girls and Olympic Gymnasts are Probably More Similar Than They’d Like

Bryn Kurtz, Guest Contributor

Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, McKayla Maroney: these four women are idols for many young girls in the gymnastics community today. For the new generation, the desire to be like these strong role models is extreme. Little do they know all that glitters is not gold.

The harsh reality is that the toxic culture rooted in the sport of gymnastics has spread through more gyms than imaginable. Whether it’s on a large scale, affecting gymnasts involved in the USA Gymnastics program, or on a smaller scale, attacking local gyms and newly aspiring gymnasts in their home communities, the impacts of the damaged system of gymnastics are felt by gymnasts worldwide; effects that are too dangerous to go unnoticed.

For years, gymnasts have borne the physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse that comes with taking part in the sport. Physically, gymnasts are forced to endure challenges that go beyond the gym. Many athletes participate while also fighting eating disorders and injuries; in fact, most claim that these difficulties are placed on them by their coaches and trainers.

Following an interview conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Georgia Cervin, an honorary research fellow from the University of Western Australia, concluded that, “… gymnasts repeatedly describe a “toxic” culture of control, which included being forced to train with injuries.” Additionally, she stated that, “The focus on the “ideal body”, especially for young female athletes, combined with harmful weight-management and body-shaming practices can result in long-term eating disorders.”

Mentally and emotionally, the sport does not get any easier. Keynote speaker and workshop trainer, Anna Litwin states that, “some mental health experts say the recurring verbal abuse, including berating, ridiculing, threatening, demeaning and insulting, can be as harmful to young people as physical abuse or sexual abuse. It has also been linked to depression.”

Another factor contributing to the mental and emotional abuse felt by gymnasts is that the sport is founded on the idea that winning must come above everything else. Cervin states that, “The goal of winning medals was prioritized over any concern for athlete welfare. And when gymnasts did win medals, this was seen to justify unacceptable behaviors.”

Furthermore, she explains that “a win-at-all-costs culture that accepts negative and abusive coaching behaviors has resulted in the silencing of athlete voices and an increased risk of abuse.” The desire to take home the gold at each competition has become less of a motivational factor, and more an effort to avoid being shamed.

Mentalities such as this can lead to serious injuries, both mental and physical. One critical example occurred at the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo when Simone Biles bowed out of the competition due to mental health issues. And though some say that her actions were weak and inconsiderate, such events can and should be prevented by simply altering the way we think about the sport.

Sexual abuse is another issue that has become more prominent in the gymnastics community. One of the most high-profile sexual assault scandals began in 1994, but it was not until 2014 that the media revealed Larry Nassar’s role as part of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. Litwin explains that there were, “…more than five hundred victims of sexual abuse by the team doctor of the USA Gymnastics organization, Lawrence G. Nassar…”

Though it was a tragic event for many members of the team, the impact that was made on the gymnastics community was substantial. Litwin states that “Since Nassar’s conviction for sex crimes, other instances of abuse of young Olympic athletes have come to light against coaches who are mentally, physically, and verbally abusive to young female athletes.”

Even though the system of gymnastics is beyond broken, there are many solutions for the fundamental issues. Making athletes more aware of abusive coaching styles and giving them the tools to report such patterns can help them become more comfortable in the gym. Additionally, providing better training for coaches and instructors, and holding them accountable can help prevent damaging events from taking place.

We must act now to help our athletes and community before the system becomes unmanageable.