Does the gymnastics sports subculture create an environment for abuse in elite level sport?


This piece was written in 2016 shortly after the Indianapolis Star broke the Nassar abuse story.

The troubling issue of sex abuse within youth sport has been prominent within the media over the past few months.  The abuse of youth football players in the UK from grass roots level to professional clubs has emerged with both the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Police being ‘flooded’ with phone calls alleging abuse (Dodd, 2016).  In the United States, Dr Larry Nassar, a respected osteopathic physician who worked with the United States gymnastics team for four Olympic Games has also come under scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after multiple sexual assault claims were made regarding vaginal digital penetration during treatments for back pain (Hawkins, 2016).  These allegations came just a few weeks after a regional newspaper exposé of USA gymnastics failure to report sexual abuse claims made to them, some of which resulted in criminal conviction many years later (Kwiatkowski, Alesia & Evans, 2016).  Sexual abuse is just one form of abuse considered within youth sport, often garnering media interest due to the deviant and criminal nature of the act, however, other forms of abuse exist but are often difficult to distinguish from normalised behaviour within the elite sport subculture.  The discursive practices of emotional and physical abuse are prevalent in elite youth sport (Tofler, Stryer, Micheli & Herman, 1996; Coakley, 1993) and have become institutionalised ‘regimes of truth’ through elite sport ideological expectation (Coakley, 1998).   Reynolds (2000) argues that normalisation of physical and emotional abuse may be seen by high achieving athletes as simply a means to an end whilst Kerr and Stirling (2012) suggest parents may in fact be complicit as ‘silent bystanders’ to their child’s experiences of emotional abuse.  David (2005) implies youth sports are often organised for the gratification of adults and that young athletes rely on those adults for guidance and support; one must ask, with the adults in charge pursuing a win at all costs ethos who is looking out for the welfare of the child?

The many benefits of youth sport have been widely documented (Cote, 1999; Stevenson, 1990) with parents introducing their children to sport not only as a fun activity but also to enhance their child’s social, physical and educational development (Litherland, 1996).   Parents may become highly involved with their child’s sporting activities especially in the ‘sampling’ years (Cote, 1999) and often become socialised into the sports subculture themselves (Woolger & Power, 1993).  However, early specialisation sports such as gymnastics have been cited as potential arena’s for the instigation of abusive practices; firstly, due to the vulnerability of young children and the possibility for adult abuse of trust and power and secondly as these types of sport require intensive training from a young age with children often spending more time with the coach than with their own parents (Donnelly, 1993).  It has been documented that as the coach-athlete relationship develops and strengthens throughout the child’s sporting career, parents may be left standing on the side lines looking in having relinquished control of their child to the coach (Harwood & Knight, 2009; Kerr & Stirling, 2012).  Parents often respect the coach’s position and accept their ‘knowledge of truths’ unconditionally often allowing them complete control of their child’s sporting career, thus increasing the risk of abusive situations (Stirling & Kerr, 2009).  Kerr and Stirling (2012) report the power the coach exerts over the athlete may also extend to the parents, this is highlighted in a quote from the father of a former elite gymnast, “What I’d tell other parents is it’s not worth it.  It’s just a sport … It was child abuse what we did, what the coaches did … But how do you draw the line between encouraging and pushing? I certainly couldn’t.” (Ryan, 1995).  In contrast to this Tofler, Knapp and Lardon (2005) posit the idea of ‘achievement by proxy distortion’ whereby parents and other adults such as coaches live their lives vicariously through the child often putting them in precarious situations or accepting and even encouraging abusive practices in the pursuit of glory.  Turner (1995, p17) asserts that the majority of parents have their child’s best interests at heart and want to protect them, however, in the name of elite sport children’s rights are often regarded with ‘misgiving, suspicion and hostility’.

Elite gymnastics often combines a tough training regimen, rigorous coaching and the potential for injury from a young age with children being selected for the elite pathway as young as five to seven years old; these athletes follow a disciplined and demanding training programme usually before the age of ten (Tofler, Stryer, Micheli & Herman, 1996).  It has been suggested the intensity of early specialisation training in itself may lead to abuse (WHO, 1998), with some high level coaches emphasising the quantity of training over the quality, often mirroring adult style training programs (Bizzini, 1993).  In fact, Garrick and Requa (1980) suggest there may be long-term adverse effects of gymnastics participation at the elite level due to the physical and psychological demands placed upon young athletes.  With excessive training programmes and nutritional regimes regarded as the ‘price to be paid’ for sporting achievement, abuse by the coach may be accepted not only by the adults within the sports subculture but also by the athletes themselves (Brackenridge, 1994, p294).  It has been estimated eating disorders in female athletes may be as high as 60% as opposed to only 3% in the general population (Rosen & Hough, 1988; Yeager, Agostini, Nattiv & Drinkwater, 1993), within elite gymnastics there is an overwhelming pressure to conform to the ideology of the thin, aesthetic body (Donnelly, 1993) contributing to the development of positive deviance (Hughes & Coakley, 1991).

Risk taking through positive deviance is a hallmark of the Sports Ethic, a name given by Hughes and Coakley (1991) to explain why athletes make sacrifices for their sport, display a win at all costs attitude and accept risk and injury in the name of the game.  In elite youth sport this attitude may be undertaken not only for self gratification but also to avoid rejection from coaches, parents or officials (Reynolds, 2000), this opinion is confirmed by an Olympic gymnastics coach who states “These girls are like little scorpions.  You put them in a bottle, and one scorpion will come out alive.  That scorpion will be the champion.” (Ryan, 1995: p221).  In a similar vein, Nixon (1994) discussed the risk-pain-injury paradox whereby athletes reject limits and train or compete through pain or injury, Singer (2004) reported athletes as young as nine accept that pain and injury are synonymous with sport and continue to play.  Therefore, through the hegemonic attitudes of the gymnastics subculture young athletes may adhere to certain values that could increase the prospects of long term health issues.

Donnelly (1993) suggests gymnasts admire respected coaches and authority figures who can aid their development which may contribute to positive deviance and abusive practice.  Jeanette Antolin, a former member of the U.S. gymnastics team describes how the national coach “grabbed my butt and told me to lose it … he’s everything (in the sport) … what went through my head was I need to eat less, I need to work harder … trying to figure anyway I could to please him because if I didn’t my spot for the Olympic team was up for grabs” (Reid, 2017).   With elite gymnasts training in excess of 30 hours a week (Donnelly, 1993) social isolation may ensue with concurrent suppression of social development (Coakley, 1993); with life revolving around the subcultures norms and values this may open the door to sexual abuse.  Antolin describes the repressive and emotionally abusive environment within the national training camps stating “you just bury your feelings and put on a thicker layer of skin and keep moving.  It’s the culture of gymnastics.  Your coach telling you you’re fat or you suck or you’re a piece of shit, that’s a normal thing” (Reid, 2017).  Stirling and Kerr (2009) purport some sporting cultures may cause young athletes to normalise behaviours and therefore be unaware that certain adult acts are in fact sexual abuse.  Antolin suggests “There’s definitely an environment in gymnastics that makes for a great place for an adult like Larry (Dr Nassar) to have a safe place with kids … He would make us laugh, he would give us candy sometimes, he would be a listening ear and it would never get back to the coaches … I trusted Larry” (Reid, 2017).

It can be seen that some sporting subcultures support positive deviance and in doing so may place young athletes at risk for physical, emotional and sexual abuse.  Coaches held in high esteem may put their own wants and needs before those of the youth athlete and may be supported in this by the child’s parents.  Elite sport is primarily an adult domain – organised by adults and often based on adult training programmes, this can lead to physical abuse in the form of overtraining especially in early specialisation sports such as gymnastics.  The gymnastics subculture may also lead to abusive dietary practices and a culture of risk with young athletes succumbing to the ideologies of the sports ethic and power imbalances in the coach-athlete relationship.  Reynolds (2003) recommends coaches put athletes first and results second to combat unhealthy regimes, however, Tofler (2003) suggests that coaches as members of the sports governing bodies have financial targets and result expectations to meet which may directly conflict with child protection discourses.



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