For decades, gymnastics has been sold on a dream. With its gleaming prodigies unfurling death-defying feats of athleticism wearing megawatt perma-smiles, the sport has not only pulled in great TV ratings as a staple of the Summer Olympics, but it has also reliably captured the imagination of wave after wave of would-be medallists.
“That dream is sold to every little girl who enters gymnastics. You’re told from the beginning, ‘You could go to the Olympics,’” Amelia Cline, a former elite gymnast, was saying this week. “And that dream becomes almost a tool coaches use to keep these children in these circumstances.”
“These circumstances” are the alarming reality behind the sport’s glitzy façade — a reality that’s being brought to the fore this week on more than one front. Cline is among the former gymnasts featured in the new documentary “Broken: Inside the Toxic Culture of Canadian Gymnastics,” a film that casts light on some awfully dark moments, many of them no doubt justified by the pursuit of the Olympic podium. There’s a young girl allegedly dropped on her head by a coach in a perverse act of discipline. There are child athletes urged to train through crippling injuries. There are school-aged gymnasts body-shamed and driven to eating disorders after running afoul of mandatory weigh-ins. In all, the 90-minute feature, driven by the superb reporting of TSN correspondent Rick Westhead, makes a compelling case that leaders in the sport in this country haven’t done nearly enough to drum out abusive coaching practices.
Cline, now a 32-year-old lawyer looking back on an athletic career that ended at age 14, describes her existence as a gymnast as one of “daily humiliation, yelling, threatening — coaching methods that put me at risk on a regular basis.” As Amelia’s father, Roy Cline, says in the documentary: “We allowed child abuse to happen, and didn’t confront it.”
Roy Cline’s regretful acknowledgment of his daughter’s childhood trauma raises at least one gnawing question about the culture of gymnastics. How is it, specifically, that so many young children have been left to practise gymnastics without parental supervision? Amelia Cline said that a “no-parents-allowed” policy was strictly enforced by the coaches in her childhood gym. Kim Shore, the co-founder of Gymnasts for Change and a former member of the board of Gymnastics Canada, said that she advocated for parents to be allowed to view training when her daughter competed in the sport more recently. Shore’s push for transparency brought no success.
“I’m pretty sure (the club) still has a no-viewing policy,” Shore said.
Ian Moss, the CEO of Gymnastics Canada, said in an interview that barring parents from viewing training is an “outdated practice” that isn’t encouraged by the national governing body. Still, he said he can’t guarantee that every one of the 700 gymnastics clubs in the country sees it the same way. Gymnastics Canada, Moss pointed out, reports to its provincial members, and not the other way around.
“We defer a lot of the oversight through to the provincial organizations and the clubs themselves,” Moss said. “We can’t mandate all the way down to a club.”
So goes another example of the frustrating cycle of buck-passing inaction documented in “Broken.” Which helps explain why the calls for change continue.
This week Cline and Shore, co-founders of Gymnasts for Change, a group of more than 500 former gymnasts, were among the first to testify on Parliament Hill before the Standing Committee on the Status of Women’s hearings on the safety of women and girls in sport. Shore told the committee that gymnastics is “rotting” from the bottom up and the top down. She and Cline are among those calling for an independent judicial investigation into abuse in the sport. “Broken,” they’ll tell you, has only revealed the tip of an iceberg laden with many more stories of abuse.
“We know there are some terrible secrets that have been hidden over the years, and those secrets have led to the really horrific situation we’re in now,” Shore said. “So to not uncover that past, to avoid making those same mistakes in the future, will be a massive tragedy.”
Moss, in an interview this week, said Gymnastics Canada has “always supported external and independent reviews of our culture, policies and practices.” He pointed out that in May the organization commissioned the McLaren Group to conduct an ongoing “cultural review” of Gymnastics Canada, the results of which are expected to be made public in the new year. Moss said he expects the McLaren report to be “groundbreaking.” Shore, who resigned from the Gymnastics Canada board in 2021, called the McLaren report “garbage.”
“We don’t trust it. It’s not survivor-led. It’s not trauma-informed,” Shore said. “None of us (in Gymnasts for Change) have participated in it.”
Gymnastics, of course, isn’t the only sport in the midst of an athlete-led groundswell. Rob Koehler, direct general of the Montreal-based advocacy group Global Athlete, said in testimony before the committee this week that he’s heard stories of maltreatment from athletes in a laundry list of other endeavours, including soccer, bobsled, skeleton, track and field, cross-country skiing, water polo, swimming, artistic swimming, boxing, canoe/kayak, rowing and figure skating. Add those grievances to the well-exposed dysfunction at Hockey Canada, and it’s clear there’s a problem of considerable scope in Canadian sport.
“The current system has failed athletes,” Koehler said.
Just as the Dubin Inquiry into doping that came in the wake of Ben Johnson’s positive steroid test at the 1988 Olympics stripped sports of the right to self-regulate on drug testing, Koehler is among those who believe Canada ought to be a leader in pushing for independent, third-party oversight of abuse complaints in sport.
“Abuse is a human rights issue, not a sport one,” Koehler told the parliamentary committee.
For Shore, a lot of the abuse in gymnastics comes back to the selling of an Olympic dream, and the misguided notion that the seemingly glorious ends ought to justify the too-often gory means. Never mind that studies have shown that such abusive coaching, contrary to the myth, isn’t effective in producing champions. Even if it was, it’s hard to imagine a parent invited to view it would consider it acceptable.
“We’ve allowed the façade of the happy gymnast and the dream of the Olympics to be used to push athletes harder and harder,” Shore said. “And by pushing harder we have violated athletes’ human rights. We have violated children’s inherent right to a safe and nurturing experience in sport.”