Child Abuse is the Risk When Success is All That Counts in Sport

Child Abuse is the Risk When Success is All That Counts in Sport

The Human Rights Commission report into gymnastics laid out a damning picture of a sport where child abuse was allowed to occur unchecked.

A sport where girls as young as eight were physically, psychologically, and sometimes sexually abused; where they were forced to train through injuries, endured painful exercises and subjected to fat shaming and bullying.

Why do elite gymnasts start so young?

Blame the 10,000-hours rule — the theory that it takes that long to master any discipline.

But consider that 10,000 hours might equate to eight years of training for 30 hours a week for 40 weeks a year. 

For a gymnast to be at her peak at 16 — which is the minimum age to compete at the Olympic Games — she would need to start intensive training when she was just eight.

child abuse in sport

Radio National's Sporty covered the evolution of how gymnastics became a sport for young girls, after it was first designed for mature women in the 1930s.

Then in 1976, along came 14-year-old Romanian Nadia Comaneci, who became the first "woman" to score a perfect 10 in Olympic competition, and the sport had a new paradigm.

Women's artistic gymnastics is a misnomer; from 1976 it was a sport for girls.

From the 1950s to the late '80s, the sport was almost exclusively dominated by the Soviet and Eastern bloc countries after which the US and China began to also feature more predominately in the medals.

And so, what did Australia do as it hunted for international gymnastic success from the 1980s onwards?

Increasingly Australia's elite gymnasts were coached by people hired from those successful countries — particularly the Eastern Bloc countries and China — whose methods have now been called into question.

Recently, the Australian Sports Commission apologised to "former AIS athletes treated inappropriately in the past".

"We know incidents and practices occurred that are not acceptable. For this, we are truly sorry," the ASC said in a statement.

The question we are now forced to confront as a nation that provided the funding for this system is this: what price did these gymnasts have to pay?

Hundreds have come through the elite system over several decades with broken bodies and damaged psyches.

And what of other sports?

The ABC has revealed instances of child sexual abuse in Australian Rules Football.

Moreover, the ABC is aware of many former athletes from many other sports who have either had cases of abuse heard in the courts or who have come forward to lawyers to begin legal action.

Last year, Tennis NSW urged the federal government to do more to protect children from abuse.

Tennis was one of the sports named in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, but the ABC is aware of others that weren't named where former athletes have made allegations of abuse.

The weight of allegations forced Gymnastics Australia to initiate the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry that laid bare the sport's sins.

child abuse in sport

But what if gymnastics isn't the only sport that's been asking too much of its athletes, or has been hiding abusers within its ranks?

It's a question we could all ask as we send our children out to play sport for all the advantages it brings: fun, fitness, and belonging to a team.

As they progress in their journey, the more talented kids will get funnelled off to elite programs and academies, sometimes via talent spotters, and sometimes through their ambitious parents.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is worth remembering that only a tiny percentage of those children may go on to win Olympic and world championship medals, or become professional sportswomen and men.

The vast majority will be cast aside somewhere along the way.

For many, the pure joy of playing sport will also have been cast aside in place of a gruelling training regime and the internal and external pressure to succeed despite the minute odds.

If those kids have suffered or lost the love that attracted them to sport in the first place, we have to ask: is it worth it?

David Mark