Sport federations: The monopoly that leads to countless abuse victims

Note: This article was originally published in Dutch in NRC Handelsblad: https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2021/05/06/voorkom-turnleed-door-controle-op-alle-niveaus-a4042638

Over the past years, something has stood out to me regarding the scandals in the gymnastics world. Sport federations are almost always a monopoly. There appears to be a lack of supervision, consequences, and a lack of competition or alternatives. Athletes have no choice when they start competing at a certain level, they automatically become a member and representative of the national sport federation. They have to assume and trust that the protection of members is the sport federation’s highest priority.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case for the Dutch Gymnastics Federation (KNGU) and many other national gymnastics federations for countless years. The gymnastics world was turned upside down due to the horrendous stories of abuse that have come out all over the world in all contexts. Whenever another story comes out of a gymnast that has been abused, it is big news everywhere. But is it really news? It is often not the first time at all that this comes out. In fact, in the gymnastics world, this has been a well-known practice. So, how is it possible that this has continued over such a long time? How is it possible that countless times, federations have gotten away with everything without any consequences? I think that the answer is that the supervision, control and facilitation of sport federations have been neglected. There were barely any consequences for the Dutch Gymnastics Federation after all the scandals. It was painfully easy to pretend as nothing had happened, and of course, the memberships kept rolling in; because there is no choice.

Obviously, this is not the first time that this has happened. In the USA, many people were calling for the abolition of the American Gymnastics Federation (USAG) due to the horrible stories of abuse that have continuously come out over the past years. Many sponsors pulled back; people were fired or had to leave; there were three different CEOs within no time, and the federation basically went bankrupt. Yet, it is still surviving. Gymnasts like Simone Biles, who has been sexually abused by the team doctor hired by the federation and whose crimes were covered up by that same federation, still has to represent that very federation in international competitions. How incredibly painful must it be to represent a federation that has failed so drastically and carries the responsibility of over hundreds of victims of sexual abuse.

As a former high-level gymnast in the Netherlands and Sweden and as a victim of mental and physical abuse, I have absolutely no trust that current and future gymnasts will be protected from injustice within the current structure. What we have learned from the past is that cases of abuse are often swept under the rug by federations or that they use big language which is never followed up. They fail to prevent and tackle abuse at the root of the problem. I doubt that any federations with recent accusations have the capacity and competence to implement the necessary changes.

Different recommendations from researchers on the abuse in gymnastics are elaborate and clear but fail to critically look at the current structure in which sports operate. Direct control of sport clubs at all levels is needed; this could, for example, be realized by municipalities. Furthermore, the supervision of sport federations needs to be ensured and implemented. Athletes need to have options to either compete at a high level without being a member of a federation or to have the ability to pick an alternative federation.

Not negligible is the fact that this goes hand-in-hand with the current worldwide structure in which sport federations operate. As this is a global issue, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may need to assess itself and the current structure critically, meaning how federations are legitimized and eligible to send athletes to competitions. Within this, they could contribute to the necessary changes and ensure that athletes don’t have to represent a federation they don’t support.

However, we need to start where we have power, which is in our national structures and our national federations. I recommend that discussions are necessary to investigate how federations can be structured in such a way that athletes are protected, and federations are supervised. Furthermore, it needs to be ensured that if abuses take place, there are clear consequences. This needs to happen on a national level, though not just for gymnastics. Because before we know it, there will be the next sport with huge scandals and more children who have been damaged for the rest of their life because they chose to follow their passion and talent.

Author: Veronique Sprenger

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