“I am scared to share my story, but at some point, someone has to stand up for the athletes,” said Mary-Anne Monckton, a winner of five national titles, now a coach. “It has been made very clear that they cannot do this for themselves. The abuse needs to stop, or at least be stamped out of our sport.”
In a parable of the times, the trigger for this outpouring was a Netflix documentary released last month called Athlete A, which follows a journalistic investigation into the assault of gymnasts in the US that led two years ago to the jailing of Dr Larry Nassar for life.
It touched a painful chord with gymnasts around the world, some of whom took deep breaths and spoke up. In Britain, it has led already to the convening of an inquiry.
In Australia, the cause was taken up by Monckton on social media last weekend, emboldening others who came in a rush on Monday. “[Athlete A] brought up a lot of old memories, painful ones that I had pushed down so deep, and I hoped that would never come back to the surface,” she wrote.
Gymnastics Australia released a statement saluting those who had told their stories and encouraging others to follow. Chief executive Kitty Chiller said GA had written to everyone who posted and was anxious to hear from others, too.
“We acknowledge and applaud those who have spoken up – their courage and their voice,” she said. “While we have accomplished a lot in recent years, I know that our work in this area is not finished, and nor should it ever be.
“We acknowledge that speaking up is difficult. I want you to know that we are here to listen. And we are here to act.”
The catalogue of Australian stories makes for harrowing reading.
Olivia Vivian, who represented Australia at Olympic and Commonwealth Games, said she began at nine when she didn’t know what the Olympics were and in the first month learned that short hair was preferable “for a better-looking ponytail”, crying was not acceptable, coach knows best and that she had better not complain to her mother.
“After reaching my goal and representing my country at the highest level, I was a broken athlete and a broken person,” she said. “I was so over this sport.”
Victorian Britt Greeley said she was called fat by a coach in front of fellow gymnasts, competed variously with a broken foot and back, and after breaking her nose was told to “fix it later on in life when you’re no longer doing gymnastics”.
Dual Olympian Georgia Bonora tells of a “culture of fear”. West Australian Yasmin Collier tells of being in a group of five 12-year-olds left alone at Moscow airport for half a day and building suitcase barricades to deter men. The adults were in the Qantas Club, she said.
Livia Giles, who represented Australia and Poland, tells of being deprived of food at the AIS and how the swim team would sneak in provisions for her.
Gilliland said when she was 17 and at her supposed peak, she was “anxious, stressed and depressed”.
She was told she was heavy, and stupid. “I never had the ‘right’ body type,” she said. “I never had the ‘right’ hairstyle. I never had the submissive and oppressive personality that I was tricked into believing I needed to be successful.”
Olympian Jade Sharp looked back in bemusement. “As a child, I used to wonder how the adults around me could see what was happening and not say or do something,” she said.
Monckton said she did not want future gymnasts to endure the same environment. “However, this insidious culture won’t go away overnight,” she said. “Old school coaches and outdated methodologies are still around today.”
Chiller, who took up the job at GA after serving as Australia’s chef de mission at the Rio Olympics in 2016, said GA now had a “robust and confidential” complaints procedure and would convene “listening groups” to improve support.
“Changing and building culture is a journey that is never complete,” she said. “We need to continually challenge our thinking, actions and behaviours, and can only do this by listening to those involved in our sport.”
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Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.