Parents allege brutal “punishments” are being inflicted on elite young gymnasts in Melbourne, where children are forced to do handstands until their arms give out and swing from bars until their hands bleed.
But the parents say an investigation into their allegations has been prematurely shut down.
Former Gymnastics Australia (GA) board member George Tatai, who has an Order of Australia Medal for his service to the sport, has accused the organisation of sweeping the issue under the carpet to protect its reputation instead of its young athletes.
The investigation was sparked by complaints from athletes’ parents, who alleged that children as young as eight were regularly verbally and physically abused at the sport’s National Centre of Excellence (NCE) in Melbourne.
“Punishments would involve making them swing on the bar until their hands bled, doing squats until their knees gave out, or making them do handstands and stay upside down until they felt sick and fell over,” one parent said.
Punishments are given when you have not performed, when you may have been perceived to being a bit cheeky or didn’t pay attention, any misdemeanour.”
The ABC has spoken to four parents who all raised similar allegations.
Others confirmed they had similar concerns, but declined to be interviewed.
These parents were among 16 parents who told the ABC about the alleged poor treatment of their children in gymnastics.
The majority of the gymnasts in the elite program are under 15 and spend 20–33 hours a week training at the gym at Windsor, in Melbourne’s south-east.
‘Mum, please don’t complain’
Parents said their children were often belittled and harassed.
“It is very, very common for athletes to be yelled at on a daily basis, multiple times in a four-hour training session,” one parent told the ABC.
“It would be normal for a gymnast to be told on a daily basis that she is rubbish, she is hopeless, that she’s not good, that she’s wasting their time, that she is weak,” they said.
“They’re not allowed to comfort each other. If they do, they get told off for giving the other gymnast a hug.”
Training sessions are also closed to parents – meaning they weren’t allowed to be present for some of their children’s massages and medical appointments, which often occurred during training, parents said.
“Like most parents do with a school camp or excursion I gave consent for medical help in an emergency, but this went beyond that in the sense that you would have medical appointments happen that you would only find out about after,” one parent said.
“You don’t know what’s happened when they were in there.
“They are in charge of your child’s entire health. You don’t know what the follow up is because, ‘You don’t need to know, you’re just the parent’.”
Parents also spoke of their fear of making complaints because they had seen other children treated badly when their parents raised concerns.
“We are all terrified because our daughters will be made to suffer,” one parent told the ABC.
“They come home and say, ‘Mum, please don’t complain’ — because they know when they go back to training they’re going to get a hard time.
“They know that they’re not going to be selected for a state or national team.”
Parents stunned by findings
Parents were questioned by a member protection information officer (MPIO) earlier this year, who was employed to listen to parent’s complaints.
That led to GA’s appointment of an independent investigator in May, to look into the gym’s culture and management.
“We were told pretty clearly in our dealings with the MPIO that there were distinct breaches in procedures and policy in the way kids were supposed to be treated,” one parent said.
But soon after receiving an interim report from the independent investigator, Gymnastics Australia CEO Kitty Chiller told parents in August that the investigation would not go any further.
Her statement to parents said:
• The majority of allegations listed in the interim report were found to be “incomplete”.
• Based on the investigator’s interim report, GA did not find that any staff member was in breach of their employment with GA
Parents said they were stunned by the statement.
“When the end of the review came through everybody was just gobsmacked to have a six-line statement saying ‘there’s nothing we could find here’,” one of the parents said.
Another parent said they believed GA had shut down the investigation.
“There’s no other explanation for it,” they said.
“It is utterly disappointing that GA lack the will to follow through with what could have been an initially painful experience for them, but an opportunity to make things better going forward. Instead they just dismissed everybody’s hurt.”
Gymnastics Australia prepares response to allegations
The ABC contacted Gymnastics Australia CEO Kitty Chiller with specific questions about the allegations and the investigation.
Ms Chiller responded with a short statement which said GA took the issue of child safety “extremely seriously”.
“We are working very hard with our state and territory colleagues and clubs to ensure we provide a safe environment for all of our participants,” she said.
Ms Chiller said the organisation will take time to consider the issues raised before providing a more detailed written response this week.
‘Swept under the carpet’
Mr Tatai, who spent 21 years on the GA board, said the investigation merely paid lip service to parent’s concerns.
“It was basically swept under the carpet and was basically, to me, saying, ‘Well, we’ve got a few disgruntled parents out there and we’re not going to really listen to what they’ve got to say’,” he said.
“The investigation at least should have said if it didn’t find anything.
“If it was inconclusive, at least come back and make a statement to the parents – ‘Yes, we’ve listened to you, we can’t prove it, but we have taken these steps and we’ve spoken to people involved’.”
Mr Tatai, who was also a member of the International Gymnastics Federation for eight years, said GA had lost sight of who it represented.
“It seems to have morphed into an organisation that is protecting the organisation ahead of the interest of the athletes and the community,” he said.
“What that’s created is [a situation where] parents have gone through a process that hasn’t resulted in anything and are now going to be even more reluctant to be open and say something because it’s a waste of time.
“This is the very thing that GA and the USA is trying to say we want: to create an environment where people are comfortable about coming forward and, if they’ve got an issue, say something without any fear of repercussion.
“That isn’t happening.”