A sporting shame

Female gymnast competes on balance beam. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
There is so much beauty in a sport like gymnastics that it can be quite jarring when the lid is lifted on a toxic environment that, far from nurturing and nourishing its athletes, drives them to the brink.

We see gymnasts performing delicate, graceful moves — or actions of thunderous physicality that leave one breathless in awe — and we presume these wonderful young athletes are happy as well as talented and driven.

But things are not always as they seem.

The New Zealand Herald has been investigating allegations of abuse in gymnastics, largely surrounding the North Harbour club, and telling the stories of young women who "carry the psychological hangover of being made to feel worthless by people supposedly entrusted to bring out the best" in them.

Accusations of abuse, over-training and fat-shaming of athletes as young as 8 were levelled at the club.

The women and girls who spoke to the Herald talked of being forced to perform while in excruciating pain from injured limbs, of constant verbal abuse and belittling, of emotional abuse that led to eating disorders.

It has made for harrowing reading, and has prompted Gymnastics New Zealand to speak openly about the need for a culture change in the sport.

That needs to happen, and the first steps taken towards that change must come quickly to prevent future gymnasts experiencing similar pain.

It is a fine sport, a code that offers both the carrot of international pathways for elite performers and all the lovely concepts like personal development, confidence building and competitive spirit that can be so healthy for youngsters — when they take place in a supportive environment, that is.

Gymnastics, of course, is not alone in finding itself in the spotlight in a time of progressive attitudes towards sport and the demands coaches and parents place on children.

In too many sports have we heard of cases of young people being treated poorly, and burning out because of the excessive demands placed upon them, usually by adults seeking to bask in reflected glory, or by having their sport being semi-professionalised.

There is no shame in trying to win, or earn selection for a team or competition. There is no problem with adults encouraging their young charges to get on top of the podium or earn that gold medal.

What is a problem, at times, is the method being used to get that message across.

Multiple studies have overwhelmingly shown the biggest reasons children participate in sport are for fun and to hang out with friends. It is the adults who sometimes get in the way

Leading Herald sportswriter Dylan Cleaver summed it up beautifully when he said we shouldn’t be surprised at this sort of scandal when youth sport was "increasingly commercialised, commoditised, academised, professionalised and televised. Gross things happen in gross environments."


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