Gymnasts laid complaints about alleged abuse

Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Gymnastics New Zealand prevented Olympic hopefuls from competing for months after the athletes raised concerns about an allegedly abusive coach at a 2018 training camp.

Multiple gymnasts and coaches individually laid complaints with Gymnastics New Zealand (GNZ) about the actions of a coach brought in from the USA for an international training camp, RNZ understands.

Complaints ranged from verbal abuse – which resulted in the elite athletes hiding from the coach to avoid continuing training – through to dangerous training methods in which one gymnast fell on her head and gymnasts being told to train against medical advice.

The overseas coach who attended the camp, and a subsequent international tour, was heavily involved with the USA Gymnastics programme. That programme has been the subject of an investigation.

A long-standing member of the New Zealand gymnastics community, with a knowledge of the recent elite women’s programme, told RNZ that the governing body undertook an investigation which resulted in sanctions for the athletes who spoke out.

“The investigation was performed by the CEO of Gymnastics New Zealand who wanted to protect the coach because that coach is in thick with the establishment judges, so it was easier for him to penalise the gymnasts than take on the coach from America,” she said.

“I feel very sad that those athletes weren’t taken seriously. There is a culture of fear of speaking up against Gymnastics New Zealand as it is fairly well understood that there may be consequences of having an opinion and part of this is because there is no transparency in selection for squads.

“I don’t think the current way that Gymnastics New Zealand is run is robust, or safe and it certainly shouldn’t be allowed to continue.”

Concerned parents of the elite teenage athletes who raised issues about the coach sought legal advice after their daughters were given sanctions by GNZ that stopped them competing in events that counted towards Olympic selection.

A complainant told RNZ a renowned lawyer got involved as an independent party to mediate the situation and the lawyer concluded that GNZ’s investigation had “serious flaws procedurally and in substance”.

GNZ had no independent complaints process in 2019, so those still troubled by GNZ “ignoring athletes concerns” reached out to High Performance Sport via telephone and email last year but were told the government organisation has “no jurisdiction” over GNZ and any concerns had to be addressed to GNZ.

“[GNZ] is a toxic autocracy with little or no checks or balances,” the person who has been involved in the sport for more than a decade said.

“They need to be answerable to someone and they’re not.”

GNZ chief executive officer Tony Compier said last week the organisation wanted gymnasts who may have suffered physical or mental abuse in the sport to confidentially get in contact via a new email function on the GNZ website.

This request has been met with scepticism by several people involved with the sport that RNZ spoke to.

“GNZ does not act in the interests of the competitive national womens athletes, it is a current issue and the independent complaints email that has been set up is in my opinion too little too late to save the credibility of the organisation,” one said.

A former New Zealand representative gymnast said GNZ was not proactive in dealing with athletes concerns and regarded Compier’s call for athletes to reach out “with a fair amount of cynicism”.

“There is no information about where that email address goes, how you will be protected if you make allegation and what the process is once they receive a complaint. It’s clearly just a bandaid on a much bigger issue,” she said.

“And as far as we know, they have not reached out to any former athletes. It’s difficult to believe their claims when we have no evidence that they actually want to listen.”

She said GNZ’s athlete-based advisory group, established to inform around the safety and well-being of athletes, needed to include input from those outside of the current competitors.

“I understand current athletes absolutely need representation, but there is significant evidence that gymnasts struggle to recognise abuse for what it is, in addition to being afraid to speak up, so there is a huge need to include former athletes in this space, as they have a bit of distance and further perspectives they can offer.”

GNZ has come under fire from former gymnasts who have recalled incidents of systemic psychological and physical abuse in recent media reports.

Compier told Stuff it has launched “urgent enquiries” into the allegations.

“We do not in any way condone body-shaming, physical, emotional or mental abuse, or pressure put on athletes with regards to food and weight, or performing whilst injured.”

The long-standing member of the New Zealand gymnastics community said change was needed at the top.

“There is a consensus amongst many of us involved in the sport that the only credible way out of this really for Gymnastics New Zealand is a clean-sweep.

“It’s time for all of these people like the old establishment judges and coaches and [GNZ staff] to step aside and let a new generation come through in a more transparent and fair manner where they are answerable to the people that pay the fees.”

Gymnastics New Zealand could not be reached for comment by RNZ.

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