Offending Institution: Gymnastics Abuse in Australia

girl on the balancing beam

In 2020, Netflix released a documentary called “Athlete A” that gave the world a horrifying glimpse into the world of USA Gymnastics. Olympic athletes endured ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of their travelling doctor and masseur, Larry Nassar, who has since been imprisoned.

Gymnasts worldwide resonated with “Athlete A”, and hundreds were inspired to share their own experiences on social media. Several high-profile Australian gymnasts were among the survivors who spoke out online.

In response to the overwhelming uproar on social media, Gymnastics Australia engaged the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to complete an independent review of the culture and practices at all levels of the sport. 

The final report was informed by 47 interviews with 57 participants. Neglect, misconduct, bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault were all found to be common within the sport, with an extra disturbing edge — three in four gymnasts in Australia are female, and more than 90% are under the age of 12

This creates a high-risk environment for abuse, and the Commission heard “there was a gross acceptance and tolerance of coaches and administrators’ unprofessional or inappropriate behaviour by everyone involved in the sport, from governing bodies to gymnasts themselves”. In turn, the sport was described as a “petri dish” of child abuse. 

The widespread misconduct and cover-up culture throughout Australian gymnastics are disturbing. Survivors are sharing their stories, shedding light on the abuse suffered at the hands of trusted coaches and officials, and their courage is helping to turn the tide for fellow gymnasts.

Discover the dark history behind Gymnastics Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), among other offending institutions. 

The AIS ignored decades of abuse and claimed there was “no systemic abuse of gymnasts”

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A week before the AHRC released its report, several former gymnasts came forward and claimed the AIS had ignored allegations of physical, psychological, and child sexual abuse for decades.

One of the women was seven years old when she started training at the AIS. She was not expecting the level of brutality the coaches inflicted on the athletes, including painful techniques to improve their flexibility. On one occasion, she was strapped to the bar and left to hang there for hours, and on another, she was forced to do the splits with her legs supported on two boxes.

“Our coaches would come and grab us and push us down, push our hips down to the floor,” she said.

“They’re pushing us well past the point of your body’s natural resistance and leaning their full body weight on us in order to get our legs to go back. Girls would very often be in tears or crying out in pain, and that wasn’t taken as an indication to stop. If the girls cried, they were told they were ‘babies’.” 

The survivor said the girls were forced to train and compete on rolled ankles, sprained wrists and dislocated shoulders. They would also be made to train while bruised or with open wounds held together with tape. 

The AIS was not always so accepting of the allegations. In 1995, Sports Minister John Faulkner commissioned an investigation into ongoing allegations of child sexual abuse at the AIS. Coach Mark Calton had been accused of hitting a 10-year-old gymnast — but the final report said the girl “provoked Calton into losing his self-control” and recommended counselling for the coach, not the gymnast.

Similarly, two girls said their coach had called them “fat” and “ugly”. The report claimed the terms were not used to cause psychological humiliation and that these terms were often used in high-performance training centres. Finally, the report stated:

“No systematic or widespread abuse of AIS female gymnasts has been found to occur at any time. Major change at the AIS is not necessary.”

This left gymnasts and parents seething, but a later report in 2018 didn’t offer any more comfort. The 2018 report stated that the allegations were incomplete, and the investigation took longer than expected. They claimed an extension would have “increased the burden placed on all parties involved”.

Again, no wrongdoing was found following the investigation.

ASC to offer restoration payments and counselling to abused athletes

girl lying on the floor

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Following the AHRC’s final report in 2021, the ASC issued a historic apology to athletes who suffered abuse at the AIS and admitted their failure to protect athletes and in July 2022, the ASC announced that former athletes are now entitled to restoration payments of up to $50,000 if they suffered abuse during their time on scholarship at the AIS

The “Restorative Program” is available to more than 9,000 AIS scholarship holders who attended the institute between 1981 and 2013. 

Restoration payments will range from $5,000 to $50,000 depending on the severity of the treatment the scholarship holder experienced at the AIS. A panel from the ASC will determine the amount of reparation each athlete will receive. 

The cries of gymnasts worldwide are finally being heard — and we can help you achieve vindication

Survivors of gymnastics abuse at the AIS and elsewhere may also be entitled to make a civil claim for compensation. At Kelso Lawyers, we fight for those who have been let down by a trusted institution. If you believe you have been abused by a coach or staff member within Gymnastics Australia, we want to hear your story.

We can help you receive vindication. 

Your voice can and will be heard. 

Contact us to discover your options.

Get the justice you deserve with Kelso Lawyers. We want to hear your story. Call (02) 4907 4200 or complete the online form before you accept payment from the National Redress Scheme. 

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