The Silent Shame Part 5: The Cruel Culture of Gymnastics

1992 US women's gymnastics team Barcelona
BARCELONA – 1992: (L-R) Kim Zmeskal, Kerri Strug, Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, Wendy Bruce and Betty Okino of the United States stand on the podium

They are little girls. But they are as tough as nails. They have to be in order to be a top flight gymnast. And there are real costs.

The revelations last year of sexual abuse in the world of USA Gymnastics, led by reporting by The Indianapolis Star, were shocking – well over 300 cases of sexual abuse of minors over the past 20 years!

But when you listen to people in the know, former gymnasts who grew up in the seemingly cruel world of competitive gymnastics, these stories of abuse are no surprise.

Wendy Bruce Martin won a bronze medal as a part of the US women’s gymnastics team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She currently runs a consultancy that helps athletes with the mental and emotional aspects of competition, and has thought deeply about what she calls the “cult culture of gymnastics.” Martin believes it is a culture that feeds an addiction, as she writes in a blog post:

Gymnastics is like being in an unfair relationship, it takes way more than it gives back to the gymnast, and whatever it needs from us gymnasts, we give it. When it does give back, it gives us feelings that reach straight into our souls. The little tastes of success are enough to keep us working, and get us addicted.

I was willing to give anything to gymnastics and I was willing to give everything. My addiction had me focused mostly on my immediate gratification. As long as I could perform my skills, I was willing to ignore the advice from my Doctor. When my Doctors told me to take time off of gymnastics to heal, I didn’t. I pushed myself and worked in pain, and when I couldn’t handle the pain, I begged the Doctor to help. I begged for something to help ease my pain and so against my Doctors advice, I made them give me Cortisone shots in my ankles and wrists.

Jennifer Sey is a US national champion gymnast, and author of the book, Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams. She too knows first hand of this culture. This is how she described her experience for The New York Times:

When I was training, I blackened my eyes when I fell on my head on the beam after fasting for three days before a competition. “I don’t coach fat gymnasts” was a common refrain from coaches antagonizing me about my weight. I competed on an injured ankle swollen to the size of a baseball. At one point, I required monthly cortisone injections to limp through my floor routine.

After I broke my femur at the 1985 world championships, I had the cast removed early under pressure from my coaches so that I could train for the next national championships. I competed and won, but not without breaking the opposite ankle in the process.

The message I got was that if you couldn’t take it, you were weak. If you complained, you didn’t deserve to be on the team. In fact, if you perceived it as abuse, rather than just plain old tough coaching, you were delusional.

Jennifer Sey
Jennifer Sey

The problem that these two former gymnasts reveal is that it is not just the children and the coaches that perpetuate this culture of success and abuse, the parents of these children do as well. Martin explains that she had bulimia, an eating disorder. And an adult close to her was aware of this issue, and could have decided to reveal this secret, the consequences of which could have led to treatment and possibly a loss on the Olympics squad. But, she wrote, the adult was also complicit in the culture.

This adult told me that they knew about my eating disorder and they said, “Just don’t do it too much.” I was so relieved that they didn’t want to send me to treatment or therapy. I knew that I would miss out on my chance on being an Olympian. This was exactly the response I wanted. I shook my head and promised not to do it too much, and walked away in relief.

To me, Bulimia was something I was willing to sacrifice for the chance of my dreams. I was never upset at this adult for not doing more or forcing me to go into therapy. I was fine with their passive and non-confrontational advice on my disorder. I knew that they didn’t want to ruin my dream, and they didn’t want to be the one who spoke up and destroyed the 14 years of training I devoted my childhood to. They understood the Cult Culture of Gymnastics and so did I.

Sey has similar sentiments, understanding that the child gets so locked in the culture that “you learn to focus only on achievement and to disregard your own sense of right and wrong, along with your own well-being.” But she goes on to say that parents and adults do not have that excuse, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse.

Because of this, I can understand how young gymnasts might be confused about whether and how to speak up for themselves when they’ve been mistreated. But there’s no excuse for adults to turn a blind eye to sexual misconduct.

The strength and discipline of our gymnasts shouldn’t cause us to forget that most of them are children for a majority of their careers. The coaches, officials and other adults charged with harnessing their talents must also stand up for their well-being.

I wish I’d had someone to stand up for me.

Martin exclaimed the same.

The bottom line is that NOTHING is more important than the health of a child. No skills, routine, meet, medal, or trophy is more important than the child. Gymnastics will end one day, then what will the gymnast, coach, and parents be left with?