All review examining allegations of physical and emotional abuse by coaching staff towards former elite gymnasts who trained at the Western Australian Institute of Sport has found it is “reasonably likely” the abuse or harm did occur.
The draft report by Sport Integrity Australia — which has been obtained by the ABC — was released to WAIS, participating gymnasts and the state government last week, and makes a number of recommendations, including that an apology be given to gymnasts who suffered the abuse.
The review was commissioned after dozens of women came forward alleging they were subjected to systemic physical and emotional abuse by coaches in the now-defunct elite gymnastics program between 1987 and 2016.
Ann-Maree Vallence was one of the gymnasts who fought to get the review conducted.
While a confidentiality agreement between Sport Integrity Australia (SIA) and WAIS may prevent her from revealing the contents of the report until it is publicly released, she said it was pleasing so many gymnasts have been given a voice.
“It’s been a very long time coming,” Ms Vallence said.
“We do believe that our voices have been heard and we do believe that the abuse we went through will finally be recognised for what it was … abuse.”
Gymnasts not adequately protected: review
The review heard from 92 people in total, including former gymnasts, parents, coaches and support staff.
SIA determined it was reasonably likely that some gymnasts suffered abuse and/or harm while participating in the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) program at WAIS, based on the information and material it collected.
It found the policies and procedures that governed the WAG program did not adequately protect some of the gymnasts, and it was reasonably likely that the conduct and/or omissions on the part of some WAIS and WAG staff, coaches and management contributed to the ensuing abuse and/or harm, either directly or indirectly.
Sport Integrity Australia has also made seven reports to police and other agencies in regards to allegations of sexual or physical abuse.
Included in the review are shocking tales of alleged abuse, most of which were not reported at the time due to a culture of fear that prevented athletes from speaking up.
As one participant noted:
“If you had a little whinge to your parents about something, you know, and then if they then went and relayed that to the coaches, you’d spend the next two weeks being given the cold shoulder from the coaches or you would be, you know, “Oh, are you going to cry to your parents again? You’re a baby.” And you would cop it so much if you spoke up from the coaches that we just learnt it was easier to shut up and just get on with it.”
Another participant recounted this physical assault:
“[The coach] was yelling [at me], “How come your weight is up” … that’s when [they put their] hands around my neck and shook me. I was petrified. Absolutely petrified … There was no more discussion around it, I didn’t tell me parents. So, in retrospect I can see how I was protecting my abuser and it’s only, sort of just recently, that all of this is sort of coming up and me realising ‘wow’.”
But not all gymnasts responded negatively with one recalling only positive experiences of her time at WAIS.
“I was a very empowered child and that flowed through into how I communicated and how my coaches responded and how we worked together and then in turn they also empowered me in the gym,” she said.
“I can write an equally long essay on my many incredible experiences, the adults and gymnasts who I met that were nothing but supportive, caring and professional … gymnastics played a major part in shaping the person I am today. I have had opportunities that very few will ever have. So many of my fondest memories, proudest moments, and favourite personal qualities stem from gymnastics.”
Calls for ‘meaningful apology’ after recommendations
The report makes four recommendations based on the “information and insights” gleaned from the review, including that:
WAIS adopt the National Integrity Framework, including the independent complaint handling process
WAIS ensure that all sport programs involving children are child-focused and age appropriate
WAIS continues to embed athlete wellbeing into policies, procedures, and practices into all sport programs
WAIS, in collaboration with the impacted gymnasts, engage in a restorative and reconciliatory process, and include an apology to gymnasts who were subjected to behaviours identified in the review.
The fourth recommendation was particularly important for Ms Vallence, who felt an apology WAIS issued last year in the wake of a human rights review into the sport of gymnastics in Australia was tokenistic and disingenuous.
“We asked for an apology in October 2020, 18 months ago,” she said.
“The WAIS CEO and chair of the WAIS board refused. They publicly stated that our recollections differed from the recollections of others.
“I can read between the lines … after the AHRC review evidencing abuse in gymnastics, when their hand was forced, WAIS gave a weak, frankly embarrassing apology.
“At no time has WAIS faced us with respect to the apology [so] following this report, we want a meaningful apology.”
In a statement, WAIS said it was unable to comment until the final report had been published by SIA.
SIA declined to comment on the content of the draft report.