Attorney: UK abuse claims show why women's gymnastics needs urgent reform

Al Tielemans /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Editor's Note: Eric Lewis is an international litigator at Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss with offices in the US and the UK, and also advises and represents victims of child sexual and physical abuse.

As the suicide of U.S. Olympics gymnastics coach John Geddert, and the sexual abuse suit against previous coach Don Peters, reverberate across the globe, it will be all too easy for governing bodies to again dismiss the abuse allegations as isolated incidents.

Such a convenient conclusion would be tragically wrong. The charges of human trafficking, criminal sexual conduct, and other crimes against Geddert, the prosecution of Dr. Lawrence Nassar, and the charges against Peters reflect a deeply rooted culture in the sport that leads to the continued abuse of young girls all over the world. These events must serve as an urgent warning.

I advise, pro bono, a group of British gymnasts -- from club gymnasts to Olympians -- who report a common culture of bullying, physical and emotional abuse, and in some cases sexual misconduct, that is endemic in their sport.

In the same week that Geddert was charged in the United States, 17 of these women, ranging from club gymnasts to Olympians, from active teenaged competitors to women retired for decades, are taking their calls for reform and respect to court.

Many of them have made complaints to governing bodies, but official inquiries have been stonewalled. In an interim report made public on March 8, the investigating barrister noted that 3,500 complaints had been filed with British Gymnastics from 2008 to 2020 and have been closed, with over 2,500 not yet reviewed for submission to the investigation.

This points to issues on a massive scale as the unreported incidents are likely to be a significant multiple of 3,500.

Now is the gymnasts' time to demand transparency and accountability. In addition to working with the British gymnasts, I have also conferred with Olympians elsewhere in the world who report a similar culture of bullying, willful blindness, the abuse of young girls, and the whitewashing of complaints.

Women who trained thousands of miles apart report body shaming, indifference to their injuries, training beyond what their young bodies and minds can tolerate, and authoritarian bullying sold as "creating winners".

Coaches who push girls to the ends of their endurance can often be lionised. Girls are regularly weighed and attacked for being fat, despite the fact that there are no weight limits or requirements in women's gymnastics. Male gymnasts, notably, are not weighed.

International and national bodies promulgate standards for judging which emphasise standards of beauty and grace that are pre-pubescent. Gone are the muscular, mature Soviet and Eastern European women of the past.

Girls are put on diets that keep their body fat levels so low that they delay menstruation, which leads to both short term and long term physical consequences.

In recent years, the age for Olympic competition has been raised to 16, but with the maintenance of the ideal, in high level competition, it simply increases the pressure on these young women to engage in a painful, damaging, and fruitless fight against their genetics and their hormones.

Within my conversations are repeated stories of girls being routinely kicked, grabbed, kept on equipment until their hands bleed, thrown out of the gym for lack of toughness or ability to perform new routines. Parents are often excluded from the gym so they cannot see what is being done to their children.

And then there is the sexual abuse of young girls by grown men who are given total authority without supervision or accountability. I played on a football team with a pedophile coach who similarly ruled without boundaries.

His predation, as well as that of so many others, was hiding in plain sight. The children knew about it then, as children living this reality today know about it now.

They feel powerless to do anything. They feel great shame and believe that nothing will be done against these powerful authority figures if they speak up, especially if those in charge are producing champions. And, still, they want to find affirmation from these deified figures.

Some do tell their parents. But parents frequently don't want to know, or they believe that their children cannot have that kind of knowledge. Sometimes parents come forward only to have head teachers or athletic officials deny and threaten. I have worked with organizations that specialize in child sexual abuse that recount such stories again and again across the world of sports.

We should not have to wait decades for allegations of abuse finally to be given attention. Sexual abuse presents its own tragic pain and long term consequence. Chronic muscular-skeletal injuries, endocrine disease, endemic eating disorders, body dysmorphia, anxiety and depression must also be acknowledged.

It is long past time for aggressive reform of women's gymnastics. Coaches must be subject to strict standards against bullying, over-training, physical touching, and body shaming. They must be subject to strict supervision by independent medical professionals.

There must be an independent and robust complaints process with ongoing training of coaches and of gymnasts, helping them recognize and feel comfortable in calling out mistreatment.

The tragedies at Geddert's Twistars gym in Michigan or Peters' Scats gym in Southern California did not simply involve a rogue coach or a disturbed predator. They were part of a dangerous culture that has been, and continues to be, replicated throughout the world.

Global organising bodies may not be directly responsible for the specific predation of individual coaches or other trusted adults. But the responsibility for the toxic culture of women's gymnastics starts at the top with the International Federation of Gymnastics.

The FIG promotes judging standards that incentivise young girls to sacrifice their health and psycho-sexual development, and ignores claims of out-of-control coaching practices that monetise this multi-billion dollar business, but at what cost to generations of girls?