Selected Silence; Sporting Heroes Speak Out Against a System of Sports Abuse
Selection. It is the one word that every athlete longs to hear, and the one that holds power over their every move. All sporting codes, be they football, athletics, skating, tennis, swimming, equestrian, dance or motor sport; selection dictates success or obscurity. The mantra is always to not make waves that can destroy your chance of selection. It is the perfect code of silence. Sports abuse can occur in any arena.
It is nothing new then to note the alarming rise in the reports of athletes from around the world and across all sporting codes, who have endured abuses of every kind in their pursuit of excellence. Excellence which often becomes no longer about them, but that of their trainers, sporting bodies, or institutions that bask in the glory of their talent. Almost always, it is the vulnerable young ones that show promise for the future, that get channelled into the downward spiral of an adult world that loses sight of the best interests of that child.
It is now our lightbulb moment to discover that what we thought of as joyous pursuits, so often in reality, turn out to be about; ego, funding, commercial commitments and political grandstanding, by those who hold the power over their young charges. Amongst the no doubt dedicated and caring, it is a natural feeding ground of the predators to get easy access to vulnerable young hopefuls. Their positions of authority as nominated trainers, coaches and selectors allows them to bully, intimidate, abuse and exploit them.
This scourge most dramatically hit the headlines with the conviction of Larry Nassar, the highly regarded US Gymnastics Team’s doctor, who systematically sexually abused team members for years. What enormous courage it took for those young women to speak out against someone held in such high regard in their sport. It is now being brought to prominence again with the release of a new Netflix documentary titled “Athlete A”. These young women stood up, took it to court, and Nassar was jailed in 2018 for molesting hundreds of young gymnasts. Their legacy will be the countless, hopeful young girls they have saved from what they had to endure.
In more recent times, UK Sport and Sport England are now supporting independent investigations into allegations of abusive behaviour and mistreatment within British Gymnastics that had become normalised over time. Young Singapore skater, Jessica Shuran Yu has now revealed that from the age of 11 she was beaten at the hands of her Chinese trainers for what was deemed substandard training or performance. She was just a little girl.
Now in Australia dozens of Australia’s former top gymnasts are adding to the call that enough is enough. The Australian women have spoken of mental, and physical abuse, and a “toxic” culture in the sport within the nation’s elite programme. The complaints range from experiences of bulimia to adhere to weight requirements, training through injury including broken bones, coercion to perform beyond abilities, violations of supervision guidelines and an environment of criticism and negativity. Again you need to remember that these were young girls subjected to this environment.
After what is hoped to be a thorough investigation, it will surely be seen with gratitude to those such as Chloe Gilliland, Olivia Vivian and Mary-Anne Monckton, silver medallist at the Commonwealth Games in 2014, that such a review was instigated. They have already been applauded by Gymnastics Australia, Chief Executive, Kitty Chiller who is quoted as saying, ”We acknowledge and applaud those who have spoken up-their courage and their voice.” Surely these too are our sporting heroes.
As with all things, some survivors cope better than others, some just think they are coping but can pay an emotional price over a lifetime of recurring depression, and an unexplained inability to lead the fulfilling life they were on course to have. Make no mistake, this is a scourge no different to issues of any other sort of abuse that can impact over a lifetime.