‘An environment of fear’: Shifting the culture of toxicity, abuse in gymnastics

Illustration of a gymnast on a stage
Keira Lee/Staff

Content warning: sexual abuse

“Even though I am a victim, I do not and will not live my life as one. I am an Olympian.” Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber, who endured abuse as a gymnast, delivered a powerful statement alongside fellow teammates and survivors in court.

Every four years, viewers around the world tune in to watch the greatest gymnasts compete at the Olympic Games. With big names such as Simone Biles returning to the Olympics this year, it is no surprise that gymnastics has become one of the most popular and highly anticipated sports to watch.

In light of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, it is more important now than ever to remember the events in recent years surrounding abuse in the gymnastics community and acknowledge survivors’ calls for a shift in toxic gymnastics culture.

For many gymnasts, a glorified sport and shiny medals hid years of being manipulated and hurt. Leading up to a seven-day court hearing in January 2018, more than 150 women came forth with allegations of sexual abuse throughout their medical treatments with Dr. Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics national team doctor.

Among the survivors was six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, who noted that USA Gymnastics allowed for abuse to continue by ignoring signs of Nassar’s behavior and not reporting claims of abuse to authorities immediately.

“They told me to be quiet. … I trusted them and I shouldn’t have,” Raisman recalled.

Following the hearing, Nassar was convicted and sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.

Despite the unfortunate cost, the brave survivors undoubtedly sparked change in the international gymnastics community. In August 2020, the Australian Human Rights Commission conducted an evaluation of Gymnastics Australia after former gymnasts voiced mental and physical abuses, ranging from being pressured to train through injuries to receiving constant damaging criticisms over their weights and bodies. Overall, many Australian gymnasts described the culture as “toxic,” the evaluation notes.

According to a joint social media statement from former Olympians Becky and Ellie Downie, British Gymnastics was not exempt from creating “an environment of fear and mental abuse.”

“Abusive behavior was so ingrained in our daily lives, that it became completely normalised,“ the sisters said in the statement. “For too long, the health and well-being of young girls has been of secondary importance to a dated, cruel, and — we’d argue — often ineffective culture within women’s gymnastics training.”

In an attempt to speak up about an unsafe approach amid training that pushed her body “to the point of physical breakdown,” Becky Downie was called “mentally weak” and told the pain she felt was just in her head.

However, the Downie sisters pointed out that the culture in British Gymnastics, fortunately, has improved. After facing nerve-wracking weigh-in days and constant weight-shaming from coaches and nutritionists, the Downie sisters spoke out and have not been routinely weighed since 2018.

Progress has also been noticeable for top U.S. gymnasts such as MyKayla Skinner, who will be competing at the Tokyo Olympics. Skinner told The Associated Press that though Olympic training was stressful, it was “a lot more fun and not … as stressful as it used to be.”

Nevertheless, the ongoing shift in gymnastics culture poses obstacles as well. Although Biles, often named as the greatest gymnast of all time, has wholly embraced the shift, she expressed concerns about whether new changes would make it more difficult for coaches to train their athletes.

“It’s almost as if the athletes almost have too much power and the coaches can’t get a rein on it,” Biles told the AP.

As transformations continue, one of the biggest questions, as Biles points out, will be how to balance excellent results with safe and positive practices moving forward. As survivors continue to be heard and healthier approaches are underway, the upcoming Olympics can be a good marker for the shift in culture that gymnasts are looking for.

Contact Karissa Lin at [email protected].