Former female gymnasts from the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra have outlined allegations of child physical, psychological and sexual abuse, going back decades.
- Multiple gymnasts have reported suffering abuse at the AIS, including psychological and sexual mistreatment
- The AIS funds Gymnastics Australia and provides facilities for coaches and athletes
- Sports minister Richard Colbeck says he expects an upcoming report to reveal “concerning events and practices within gymnastics”
The accusations come as the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) prepares to release an independent report on Monday into the practices of gymnastics in Australia.
The report is expected to detail experiences of children suffering from bullying, misconduct, abuse and sexual harassment in the sport going back decades.
The ABC has spoken to two former gymnasts who attended the AIS — Australia’s taxpayer-funded premier sporting institution — as girls in the 1990s and 2000s. They have similar allegations of physical and psychological abuse.
WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions of allegations of child sexual abuse.
One woman says she was sexually assaulted by an AIS coach.
A lawyer representing nine former AIS gymnasts alleges some of the institute’s coaches were employing similar training methods over several decades despite ongoing complaints and claims the AIS turned a blind eye to abusive practices.
Dr Sophie Vivian was just seven years old when she began training at the Institute of Sport after winning ACT state gymnastics championships when she was just five.
“There was a lot of belittling, a lot of humiliation, a lot of yelling,” she said.
She said the coaches used painful techniques to build strength and flexibility.
“You would be strapped to the bar and left to hang for long periods of time, and have to do repetitive exercises in that position.”
She said the exercise caused her wrists to bleed.
“And again, if you cried, you were just called ‘the baby’,” she said.
Another exercise involved doing the splits with her legs supported on two boxes.
“Then our coaches would come and grab us and push us down, push our hips down to the floor,” Dr Vivian said.
“So 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.
The same exercise was still being used more than a decade later when Olympic hopeful Elizabeth* (as she wants to be known), began training at the AIS.
“I would have my front leg on a box and my back leg on another box in splits and would be sat on for two minutes,” she said.
She said the exercise was incredibly painful.
“If you cried, you stayed in that position until someone took you off,” she said.
Elizabeth said she loved gymnastics until she started at the institute aged 11.
But within her first weeks at the AIS, she saw a very different side to her sport.
“I remember the day very clearly. I was doing chin ups on the bar and my coach, he started telling me he didn’t like the way that I was doing my chin ups,” she said.
“He just started screaming at me that I was an idiot and that it was easy and that if I couldn’t do it, right, I’d have to do a million.
“I was trying to explain my elbow was hurting — I couldn’t keep going and I couldn’t do it properly because of my elbow and he just kept screaming and telling me that I was lying.”
Both women say they were forced to train through injuries as children.
Dr Vivian said during her three years at the AIS she suffered from rolled ankles, sprained wrists, open wounds (which were taped when she trained), bruising and dislocated shoulders.
Elizabeth said she was forced to train with a painful shoulder for three months.
“I was bellowed at that I was lying and I was forced to train through it.
“And it led to me having a shoulder reconstruction at 13.”
The women allege fat shaming and an obsessive focus on weight was a feature of their time at the institute.
Elizabeth said she was called “fat” despite weighing just 22 kilograms when she was 11.
“I couldn’t have bananas — they had too much sugar. I couldn’t have muesli bars — they had too much fat,” she said.
“So quite often I did go to bed starving and not eat breakfast because I felt so sick in the morning.”
Dr Vivian remembers being very hungry through training sessions, which could go on for hours without a break for food.
She said it was commonplace for other athletes at the AIS to sneak food to the gymnasts because “they were constantly hungry”.
The girls were weighed daily and subjected to constant skinfold tests.
Elizabeth said her parents accepted the eating practices because her coach told them that was what was needed to become an Olympic athlete.
They were manipulated, she said.
“My coach would bellow and treat us horrifically, but then tell our parents how amazing we were,” she said.
“He’d done all the successful things, and we could go all the way and he was going to get us there [the Olympics].”
Elizabeth also alleges she and other gymnasts were touched on their genitalia and breasts when they were training by the same coach at the AIS, who is now living overseas.
“He would be saying ‘squeeze your bum, squeeze your bum’, and while he’s saying this, he was squeezing, using his hand and squeezing our bums,” she said.
“And he would run his hands down the inside of our thighs until he touched our vaginas.
“He would be like ‘chest in, chest in’ and while he was saying ‘chest in’, he was grabbing our boobs.”
In 2019, Gymnastics Australia introduced a child-safe policy and put out a series of educational videos.
Years later, when she was 18, she reported the alleged assault to the police, accusing the coach of “verbal, mental, physical and sexual abuse [when she was] between the ages of 11 and 14”.
Elizabeth said the police told her they could not do anything because there was not enough evidence and the coach had left the country.
Dr Vivian describes being taken to a room at the AIS as a young child where she was made to demonstrate various techniques in front of a group of men – coaches from another country.
She said her legs were extended over her head into the splits, while a coach bared his weight on her and then put into a bridge position while the coaches moved her up and down.
“I was a little girl in a room alone with a bunch of adults who were pushing me into various positions, grabbing me, touching me, being encouraged to touch me. I was in a lot of pain,” she said.
“Being a little girl alone in a room while that’s going on is incredibly distressing.”
Dr Vivian said she’s suffered ongoing trauma from her experiences at the AIS.
“It’s taken years to work through a lot of that trauma and I’m not there yet, it’s an ongoing process,” she said.
She’s seen that trauma from both sides – as a child gymnast, and through her work as a neuroscientist. She did her masters’ thesis on the neurodevelopment of child gymnasts who have been mistreated.
WARNING: The following contains descriptions of depressive behaviour and self-harm.
“We’ve known for a long time that gymnastics is abusive, we’ve known that it’s problematic,” she said.
“We’ve known that these athletes come out with much higher rates of eating disorders, substance abuse, various other problems and they’re also incredibly vulnerable to sexual abuse.”
Elizabeth also said she suffered from anxiety and depression and was hospitalised with a stress reaction while she was still a child.
“I started cutting not long after that. I was clinically diagnosed with anxiety and depression at 15 and was put on suicide watch,” she said.
“I really had to fight my way out of that place.”
She said the physical, psychological and sexual abuse she alleges she was subjected to forced her to hide and suppress her emotion, which led to prolonged mental health issues.
“We don’t cry, you know,” she said.
Elizabeth is one of nine former AIS gymnasts who are represented by Lisa Kinder from Donaldson Law and are considering legal action against the Institute.
She said despite the fact that her clients were at the AIS over a two-decade time span, the extent of their allegations of physical and psychological abuse are remarkably similar.
“The cost is way too high. These children have sacrificed their childhood and they’ve come out the other end not only with broken bodies, but as broken people,” she said.
She described the allegations as “child abuse”.
“How could a system like this have evolved over really two decades and sustained over that time without the management being aware of it?” she asked.
Elizabeth said her father did write to the AIS management at one stage to protest about the yelling her daughter said she was subjected to.
But she said he was told there was no need for an investigation because the athletes were never left alone with her coach.
Gymnastics in Australia has been the subject of repeated allegations of misconduct, bullying, abuse, sexual harassment, and assault.
The ABC recently reported on allegations by gymnasts of misconduct at the WA Institute of sport.
In 1995, then-sport minister John Faulkner commissioned an independent investigation to examine allegations of physical and psychological abuse.
The investigation reported: “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.”
Despite those findings, allegations about mistreatment of gymnasts continued to emerge.
Last year’s Netflix documentary series, Athlete A — about investigations into the USA Gymnastics program — led to a groundswell of stories by former athletes on social media.
It prompted Gymnastics Australia (GA) to commission an independent review into the sport by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, which will be released on Monday.
The report will focus on GA’s response to complaints about bullying, misconduct, physical and psychological abuse as well as sexual harassment.
The commission received more than 100 submissions and is expected to detail examples of abuse without naming names.
Elizabeth was one of the former AIS athletes who gave a submission to the HREOC investigation.
She hopes it will provide answers to the one question she has been asking herself since her time at the institute of sport: “Why didn’t they do anything?”
“How often do we have a physiologist come in and see us getting treated that way?
“The cleaners kicked us out of the gym when we were getting bellowed at.
“Recovery would see us in tears.”
The women’s gymnastics program at the AIS wound up in 2012, although the AIS still leads Australia’s high performance sport system as part of the Australian Sports Commission, overseen by Sports Minister Richard Colbeck.
Ms Kinder said the federal government is ultimately responsible for the practices at the AIS.
Over the past decade the Sports Commission has handed Gymnastics Australia more than $40 million, including more than $20 million for its high performance program.
These taxpayer funds allow Gymnastics Australia to pay for employment of its own full-time coaches as well as others in state high performance programs, and funds travel and other expenses for coaches and athletes.
In addition, Gymnastics Australia benefits from AIS facilities and staff, including sports scientists and administration support in Canberra for training camps.
The ABC asked Gymnastics Australia, the Australian Sports Commission and Senator Colbeck a series of questions arising from the allegations of Dr Vivian and Elizabeth:
- Was the management of the Australian Institute of Sport aware of the practices being used within the women’s artistic gymnastics program for more than two decades?
- If so, why did they not do anything to stop the practices?
- If not, were they negligent in their duties to protect children in their care?
All three delivered statements saying there were looking forward to the findings of the HREOC investigation.
Senator Colbeck said: “I expect this report will reveal a number of concerning events and practices within gymnastics, particularly with respect to treatment of young gymnasts.”
The ABC also asked Gymnastics Australia and the Australian Sport Commission to respond to Elizabeth’s claim that she had been touched on her vagina, breasts and bottom by an AIS coach.
Gymnastics Australia wrote: “Any sexual abuse of any child is absolutely abhorrent. There are clear mandatory reporting requirements that Gymnastics Australia, state and territory bodies and clubs are required to abide by.”
The Sports Commission’s statement said: “These latest allegations of past practises at the AIS are confronting and upsetting. We admire the courage of people who have come forward to share their stories.
Both Dr Vivian and Elizabeth say their primary concern is to prevent any further damage to young girls.
“I’m not interested at this point in finger-pointing; it just needs to change,” Dr Vivian said.
“These practices have got to stop.”
Elizabeth said: “I’ve got severe degeneration in my back and my neck. I’ve got the shoulder of a 70-year-old.
“I’ve had hip surgery, I’ll probably need to get my hip redone again in the future.
“I’m still on anxiety meds because of everything that happened. I still have nightmares. It’s damaging.
The AIS Mental Health Referral Network was established in 2018 to provide free and confidential support for past and present AIS athletes and people working in high performance sport. It includes a national network of mental health practitioners providing confidential support in areas of psychology, psychiatry, neuropsychology and nutrition. It is available here: www.ais.gov.au/mhrn
The Australian Sports Commission Sexual Misconduct Helpline also offers confidential support for former athletes and is available by ringing 1800 ASC HELP (1800 272 4357) or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org