Unstitching the abusive fabric of gymnastics

By Katie Worth

To the detriment of many female athletes, abuse is an endemic condition of gymnastics. Following the rise of gymnastic sports, a win at all costs mentality has developed - creating a toxic culture of abuse. Within the sport, coaches have been able to belittle, physically abuse and much more under the guise of achieving perfection. Countless gymnasts (male and female) have systematically experienced some form of abuse in the pursuit of their gymnastics careers.

Recently, we have become unfortunately familiar with gymnastics’ record of abuse. News headlines of “Former Team US gymnasts describe doctor’s alleged sexual abuse” and “‘Petri dish for abuse’: gymnastics faces a reckoning in Australia” have encapsulated the tribulations this sport and its gymnasts have faced. Globally, the organising bodies and Gymnastics Federations have now issued apologies and are continuing to investigate these claims of abuse. Yet, many of the actions undertaken by Gymnastics Federations have been reactive, not preventative, to the abuse present in the sport.

It has been the gymnasts who continue to raise awareness and further discussions of abuse in sport. They have been the ones leading the movement in reforming and facilitating changes in their sport. They are the ones creating a global uprising to eradicate the normalised abuse in gymnastics.

📸: Sarah Voss

Furthering this movement, Sarah Voss and her teammates Kim Bui and Elizabeth Seitz are gymnasts altering the fabric of the sport. The German gymnastics team broke the status quo by wearing unitards, instead of the traditional leotards, at the 2021 Artistic European Championship in Basel Switzerland (21st-25th of April). A unitard is a tight-fitting one-piece costume covering the gymnast’s body from the neck to the ankles. Although still adorned with the thousands of Swarovski diamanté crystals and being full body spandex, this was an important moment – it was the first time a unitard was worn in elite competition for non-religious reasons. By donning unitards, the gymnasts sought to desexualise the sport and prioritise female athletes by giving them the choice to compete in sporting attire that they feel comfortable in.

Gymnastics, like many other sports, is a heavily rule bound sport. However, there is a significant emphasis on the female body in gymnastics. While female athletes are regularly criticised over the way they look and their choice in outfit in elite sport, judges in gymnastics have the ability to penalise appearance. In the rules sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique, the Chair of the Superior Jury can deduct 0.30 (considered a medium or large error in the marking key) for “incorrect attire”. Under ‘Section 2.3.2. Competition Attire’ it follows that gymnasts ‘must wear a correct sportive non transparent leotard or unitard which must be of elegant design’. Furthermore ‘the neckline of the front and back of the leotard/unitard must be proper, that is no further than half of the sternum and no further than the lower line of the shoulder blades’, with the leg cut of the leotard not extending ‘beyond the hip bone (maximum)’ and the ‘leotard leg length cannot exceed the horizontal line around the leg, delineated by not more than 2 cm below the base of the buttocks’. The interpretation and choice to deduct is based upon the judge’s preference and the perception of what a gymnast should like. Additional marks can be deducted if the gymnast alters her leotard during her competition routine (e.g., if the leotard rides up, she is unable to fix it during the routine to make it more comfortable). Unfortunately, gymnastics prefers to prioritise aesthetics over athletes.

The problem is not just the idea of the leotard, but the criticism female gymnasts face regarding their body in the leotard. Many gymnasts like and want to wear the leotards, but comments made by coaches, judges, audience members and others in combination with the expectation of needing to wear leotards has created psychological and health issues. Forcing young women into small and tight-fitting leotards, the culture of abuse and an obsession with the female form in the sport has facilitated the growth of issues relating to eating disorders, body image and psychological problems.

The German Federation stated its gymnasts wore unitards as a stance against sexualisation in the sport, fighting the sexual objectification of its gymnasts. The gymnasts are effectively obligated to wear leotards due to both expectation and the norm. But the gymnasts should have the choice to compete in whatever uniform they want, and which they are more comfortable in. The leotards, closed sessions, the gymnasts being young and coaches in a position of power have facilitated the presence of sexualisation.

📸: Elizabeth Seitz

The comments made by the German Federation, that the unitards were a stance against sexualisation, need to be explored within the wider context and dynamic of gymnastics. Part of this context is the power officials and coaches have over the gymnasts and their careers. This entails the physical, emotional, and psychological abuse the gymnasts can endure. The other key contextual dynamic in gymnastics is the character of the sport. Women’s gymnastics was specifically devised as a sport where women could demonstrate femininity. But as female gymnasts began transgressing into perceived masculinity (muscular bodies and dangerous movements) it was compensated by “performing youthfulness”. This resulted in the increase of child gymnasts. The dominance of child gymnasts in the sport led to the International Olympic Committee implementing a minimum age at the Olympic Games due to the physical abuse and damage to young bodies. However, gymnasts today are still very young when they begin to train for international competition. This age difference between the children and their coaches/officials is crucial to understanding the development of a power imbalance that enabled the varieties of abuse in gymnastics.

It is difficult not to mention the role of Netflix’s documentary Athlete A when discussing abuse in gymnastics. The documentary focuses on the American gymnasts who survived the abuse of USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, highlighting the dire situation for the gymnasts. Nassar was one of the many coaches and officials prosecuted as part of the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal which covered the sexual abuse of female athletes over the last two decades in American gymnastics. Since 2015, more than 368 people have alleged that they were sexually assaulted by coaches, gym owners, and individuals working for gymnastics programs. Nassar himself is reported to have sexually assaulted at least 265 girls and young women dating back to 1992.

🎥: Athlete A tailer

This documentary does more than merely trace the events that led to Nassar’s incarceration. It inspired people to speak up about their experience, but also to reflect on their experience and realise what occurred was not normal, not acceptable. The film was intended to create a discussion about sexual abuse in American sport – and went further to lead an outpouring of abuse allegations globally. Sports like gymnastics are a perfect concoction for abuse and the failure of human rights.

It has been through the bravery and effort of gymnasts that the discussion of abuse continues to occur. They created a global conversation to share their experiences and bring change to their sport. They have forced the sporting bodies to be accountable, producing a coordinated effort for sporting leaders to eliminate the existing skewed norms of gymnastics. This discussion and movement to remove abuse has had repercussions with other sporting athletes speaking about abuse in their athletic careers.

There needs to be a greater focus on the athleticism of female athletes rather than the sexualisation of their body. The unitards symbolised a desexualisation of the sport and a shift to focus on athletic performance. It was stressed by the German Federation that proactive steps were more important to prevent sexual abuse. The German Federation hoped that wearing unitards would remove the sexual notions placed upon the gymnasts and their bodies. The unitards would also enable the gymnast to feel comfortable, safe and empowered in their choice to wear want they want. There is the possibility to extend the rule to allow women to wear the looser pants worn by men doing the same sport, enabling more choice. The idea that gymnasts need to wear a leotard is a by-product of the toxic culture of the sport.

However, sport should not be allowed to mirror the notion amongst some that the woman in short skirt or tight top in public or a tight leotard on the competition floor is to blame for how they are viewed. Gymnasts need to feel comfortable when they compete and not worry about their bodies.

📸: Kim Bui

Gymnastics is a beautiful sport, dissimilar to anything else. But the people, rules and culture of the sport have created an environment where the choice and wellbeing of the gymnast is neglected. Although seemingly insignificant, the actions of the German Federation takes a much needed proactive step in preventing abuse. It provided the gymnasts with the choice wear a uniform for performance – not for appearance.

But a switch of attire is merely a switch of attire – more changes need to occur. The system and culture of Gymnastics needs to be overhauled. We need to revolutionise the sport so athletes can safely enjoy and participate in the sport they love. Gymnastic Federations need to modernise and understand the impact of their regulations upon their gymnasts. Those who have abused gymnasts should be removed from the sport and Gymnastics Federations must be more proactive in protecting those under their care. Not just in gymnastics, abuse of female athletes is common and something that needs to be addressed, recognised, and prevented.

For gymnasts, athletes, and females, however, the ability to choose what they wear when participating in sport – a uniform that makes them feel empowered – is significant. This extends beyond the boundaries of gymnastics to other sports, sporting companies and sport clothing manufacturers. A sporting event should emphasize the sporting achievement of the female athletes. We need to shift the focus from the body to ability, aesthetic to athletic.

- Katie Worth

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