(Montreal) They may have appeared unshakable on a balance beam, heads held high, but their performances hid a deep evil: Canadian gymnasts denounce the “toxic culture” of their sport, physical and psychological abuse, and sue their national federation.
Public insults, extreme weight control and food deprivation, excessive forced stretching, forbidden tears, inappropriate physical contact… The bodies and minds abused in gymnastics are coming to light in Canada.
In the UK, British gymnasts last year launched a similar legal action. Since the huge sexual violence scandal affecting American gymnastics, which started in 2015, gymnasts around the world have spoken out about past physical and psychological violence.
At the end of March, in Canada, a group of more than 70 gymnasts published an open letter asking the government for an independent investigation into the “toxic culture and abusive practices that persist in the world of gymnastics in Canada”. Since then, more than 400 gymnasts, current or former, have signed it, but the response from Ottawa is still awaited.
In the Vancouver area, Amelia Cline dreamed of the Olympics. As a teenager, the gymnast devoted thirty hours a week to training.
“The first years of my career were good, but were unfortunately overshadowed by the last three, which were extremely brutal,” the former gymnast, now 32, told AFP, referring to many episodes of public humiliation, insults and abuse.
This former high-level athlete in the youth categories filed a lawsuit on Wednesday with others against Gymnastics Canada and provincial federations for having tolerated this climate of physical and psychological abuse in clubs for decades.
“The lawsuit is essentially designed to hopefully hold these institutions accountable for this systemic abuse,” says Amelia Cline.
Contacted, the Canadian federation could not be reached immediately.
“It seems logical to us that an independent investigation should take place and that these gymnasts also approve of the members of the committee that would be formed to conduct this investigation,” said Micheline Calmy-Rey, president of the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation, created in 2019 by the International Gymnastics Federation following the various scandals.
Amelia Cline says that at age 14, she was “constantly checked and questioned about (her) weight”.
As a result, nearly 20 years after giving up gymnastics, the young woman still suffers today from the “long-term effects” of this abuse: difficulties in maintaining healthy eating habits and also chronic pain.
Like many others, the former gymnast laments a “culture of fear and silence” in clubs across the country. “You can’t question what coaches do. They are the experts, and they are the ones who are going to take you to the Olympics,” she said, red jacket on her back.
This toxic relationship, a former top gymnast remembers well. “I was scared all the time. I loved sports, traveling and my teammates, but I was terrified of my coaches,” she told AFP on condition of anonymity.
She also recounts the very strong loneliness felt by gymnasts: in many clubs in Canada, parents are not allowed to attend training. And these very young children were asked never to tell about the methods, the training.
“What happens in the gym, stays in the gym,” the coaches kept telling us, says Kim Shore, spokesperson for Gymnast For Change Canada. For this former gymnast, mother of a young woman who has also denounced abuse, gymnastics is a “corrupt” environment where the “culture of domination” reigns.