A LOOK AT SAFETY IN GYMNASTICS: PART TWO

When it comes to addressing the safety concerns gymnasts have about competitions, there are structures in place to help gymnasts be heard… but are these structures working? Can they work?

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Hey everyone, this is the second half of our story about safety in gymnastics. If you haven’t heard part one, go back and start there. 

Previously, on Part One… 

MCKAYLA MARONEY: Individual finals feels fucked up. Making a gymnast wait an hour before their turn is not safe.

SHALLON OLSEN: If you can’t see the equipment, then I don’t know how they expect you to do gymnastics. 

DANUSIA FRANCIS: I was trying to test out my knee injury but it was either do your tumbles on the hard ground or don’t do them at all. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That last voice you heard, Daunisia Francis, she tore her ACL while training on at the Olympic facilities in Tokyo, and it seemed like only having hard mats to train on in Tokyo might’ve been a contributing factor. And it also seemed like other gymnasts were being affected by the mats, too. Danusia wondered if she should bring up the issue with the people in charge.

DANUSIA FRANCIS: Maybe that topic’s never been breached with them, because maybe they’ve literally never thought of it, and then maybe they would consider it.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The only thing stopping Danusia?

DANUSIA: If I had a problem, I don’t even know how I’d go about it.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And that, that’s what this episode’s about. Is there a system in place for gymnasts and their concerns to be heard? Who’s in charge of it? And, does it work? 

I’m Ari Saperstein, and this is “A Look at Safety in Gymnastics” from Blind Landing. 

Part two; “What Happens on the Inside?” 

[TYPING SOUNDS]

ARI SAPERSTEIN [IN TAPE]: Hello, below is a list of our findings and corresponding questions for the FIG. Our deadline to include… 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): It seemed like the best place to start looking for answers was by reaching out to the International Gymnastics Federation, the FIG. 

The FIG is to gymnastics what FIFA is to soccer. They’re the top dogs of the sport, the ones in charge of, well, everything. Like, the conditions gymnasts have safety concerns about, along with every other rule and procedure in the sport. The FIG oversees top level things, like how scoring works and how gymnasts qualify to the Olympics, and the smallest matters, like what kind of music the gymnasts can use in their routines, what kind of makeup they can wear. 

DANUSIA FRANCIS: You can even get a deduction if you use too much chalk and it gets on the floor, and I’m just like come on, who cares…

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): The limits on music, make-up, and chalk — it’s all written down in the FIG rulebook, which is used for all major competitions, including the Olympics. 

I asked the FIG: what’s a gymnast to do if they have an issue — specifically, a safety concern — about the rules and procedures?

FIG RESPONSE:: Dear Ari, you will find attached answers to your questions that should help you to have a better understanding of how it works. It’s important for you to know…

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): The FIG replied over email, so our producer FIG RESPONSE: is gonna read their answers throughout this episode.

And the FIG explained that within their organization, they have lots of sub-committees to deal with specific topics. Like, there’s a Marketing Commission, and an Anti-Doping Commission, and a Scientific Commission, and, also, an Athletes’ Commission. 

The Athletes Commission. It’s a handful of current and former gymnasts whose job is to find out what the athletes are concerned about, what issues they might have, what’s making them feel safe and what’s not. So, for example, a gymnast like Danusia Francis could go to the Athletes’ Commission, express her safety concerns, and the Commission would share her concerns with the higher ups at FIG, the people who make changes to the rules. 

Well there you go, I thought… done. Problem solved, right? 

DANUSIA FRANCIS: The Athlete’s Commission… First of all, I don’t know who’s on it, or, like, what they’re working on. And second of all, I wouldn’t know how to reach out to them. Like, it’s not out there, easy access information and, surely that should be something that’s, kind of, like, easy access.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): Not only is Danusia in the dark about who is on the Athletes’ Commission, not only does she not know what they do, but she has no idea how to get in touch with the Athlete’s Commission. 

And Danusia is not alone. I talked to a dozen elite gymnasts from around the globe for this story — gymnasts from Puerto Rico and Hungary and Ireland and Azerbaijan — and not a single one of them knew how to contact the Athletes’ Commission. Some didn’t even know the Commission existed. 

I asked the FIG: if the sole purpose of the Athletes’ Commission is to voice the gymnasts’ views, then why is it that the gymnasts can’t reach them to share their views?

The FIG didn’t answer that question. 

Instead, the FIG reiterated how things are supposed to work…

FIG RESPONSE: Contact information for the athletes’ representatives can be found on the FIG intranet, to which all national federations have access.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): What the FIG is saying, is each country’s gymnastics federation — for example, here in the US, that’s USA Gymnastics — needs to log in to a website that only they can access (not the gymnasts), go through the server to find the contact information for the Athletes’ Commission, and then pass it along to their countries’ gymnasts, then the gymnasts reach out to the Commission, to let them know any and all safety concerns. 

This is the FIG’s elaborate, multi-step process for what seems like a very simple task — giving gymnasts the Commission’s email address. And the FIG’s process, categorically, does not work. 

Now, that is the kind of bold, sweeping generalization that, as a reporter, I’m always reluctant to make. And I even thought to myself; “OK, the diverse array gymnasts that I spoke with don’t have the email or any contact info for the Commission, but who knows, maybe other gymnasts have it…” That seemed entirely possible, until I saw a statement on the FIG’s own website, explaining that their process doesn’t work. 

Quote: “Often, information coming from the FIG directed towards athletes or coaches is NOT dispatched by the national federations…” 

And that quote came from the former president of the Athletes’ Commission. He was saying this unnecessarily convoluted game of telephone to share an email address, it’s bad! It doesn’t work! 

That was seven years ago, by the way, and nothing has changed. And again, this is up there on the FIG’s site — they know, or should know, that reaching out to the Athletes’ Commission, like Danusia said, is definitely not easy access.

OK, but, the FIG wrote that there’s a second way to talk to the Athletes’ Commission, that about once a year, at the World Championships, there’s a meeting for gymnasts to talk to representatives from the Commission…

FIG RESPONSE: An athletes’ meeting is organized at every World Championship. This meeting is led by the athletes’ representative. This is the most appropriate place for athletes to raise any concerns or to ask for specific information.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): But a source, who’s been to the meeting multiple times, told me there’s usually about 10 gymnasts that attend out of the hundred and fifty or so that go to World Championships. You’d think the officials at the meeting would look around and go “hey, where the heck is everyone?”And if they did that, what they’d probably realize is that some of the gymnasts, certainly ones I spoke with, don’t even know that this meeting exists. 

OK, but, the FIG also says that communication happens in the other direction, that part of the Commission’s job is to reach out to gymnasts, to contact them…

FIG RESPONSE: It is the duty of the athletes’ representatives to be in touch with the athletes.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): And the way that happens, the FIG says, is…

FIG RESPONSE: They mainly use social media, such as WhatsApp groups, and emails.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): Which made a lot of sense to me when I read that, because that’s how I got in with most of the gymnasts I talked to. They’re really easy to reach on social media. 

But eleven out of the twelve gymnasts I spoke with said they’d never been contacted by the Athletes’ Commission. 

Only one gymnast, Courtney McGregor from New Zealand, said someone from the Commission had reached out. It was years ago, Courtney says she told them about a safety concern, and nothing happened, and she never heard back.

I asked the FIG: why aren’t the gymnasts hearing from the Commission when that’s a core part of their job? And, I think I need to preface the FIG’s answer by just telling you… it’s just kind of strange.

FIG RESPONSE: As in any area of society, some people are more active than others. 

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): I really was not sure what that even meant. Is it an admission of some kind? Is the FIG saying some people on the commission do their job, some don’t, and that’s that? Because that’s certainly what it sounds like. And, if so, is there a plan to fix that? I honestly don’t know. The FIG gave me a couple responses like this, where it was just a vague statement in place of an actual answer.

So, with all these questions about if the Athletes’ Commission works, I wanted to know: well who’s actually on it? Like, who are the individuals that are supposed to represent the gymnasts and help them be heard?

I managed to track down a list of the representatives on the Commission, and there was one name that stuck out to me, one name that I was kind of surprised to see… 

Liubov Charkarshyna. Liubov, a retired gymnast and an Olympic bronze medalist, is the current president of the Athletes’ Commission, and I recognized Liubov’s name because I remembered reading a translation of this interview she gave in 2019…

[LIUBOV SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]

In this interview, Liubov talks about sexual abuse in the world gymnastics, and she tells that interviewer that some of the gymnasts who’ve come forward about sexual abuse in recent years…are lying. Liubov, the president of the Athletes’ Commission, was especially critical of Americans and gymnasts who’ve spoken up later in life, saying that they’re making up claims of abuse to slander coaches they didn’t like and to make money.

The FIG says that Liubov’s comments don’t represent the FIG’s view and that the FIG told her so. 

I asked the FIG: why would a gymnast feel like they could or would want to confide in this commission about any problem when it’s chaired by someone who publicly cast doubt on gymnasts coming forward about abuse?

The FIG didn’t answer that question.

All of these pieces — gymnasts left in the dark, people not doing their job, a problematic person in power — they all point to an essential underlying question: is the safety of gymnasts a priority to the FIG? 

The FIG says yes, and so do some of the gymnasts. Some told me that, by and large, yeah, they do think safety matters to the FIG, and even gave examples; like the way equipment gets set up and webinars that the FIG hosts for gymnasts. But then, then there’s the question that Shallon Olsen asked at the end of part one…

SHALLON: Like, safety comes first, right?

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): The FIG says yes, but the gymnasts…the gymnasts are less sure about that — about if safety’s the first priority. And one reason so many gymnasts had doubts is because of this rumor, a rumor about the touch-warm-ups. 

See, when it comes to the biggest safety concern we heard about in part one — the lack of touch-warm-ups for event finals — the thing is, the FIG actually used to have these warm-ups, but got rid of the warm-ups in 2001. And Danusia Francis and Shallon Olsen and other gymnasts told me that they heard the same reason why….

DANUSIA FRANCIS: I heard that it’s just due to media wanting, yeah, wanting it to be exciting and whatnot. 

SHALLON OLSEN: It’s the media coverage over the athletes safety because they want to get the better media coverage. 

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): As in, TV networks don’t like warm-ups because it extends the length of the broadcast and they think it’s boring, and, to the FIG, making TV networks happy takes priority. 

So I asked the FIG: is this true?

And they said…yeah. Totally true.

FIG RESPONSE: The main reason for not having a one-touch-warm-up during the apparatus finals has been that it extends the time needed for competitions, which is not good for improving TV coverage of the sport.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): TV taking precedence — it was also echoed in minutes from an FIG meeting, where they wrote, quote, “warm-ups would only serve to undermine entertainment quality.” 

So yeah… when it came to touch-warm-ups, which is so, so important for reducing the risk of injury, for keeping gymnasts safe, safety didn’t come first — didn’t come first for nearly twenty years. TV and entertainment quality came first. 

I talked to Danusia and Shallon about this…

DANUSIA FRANCIS: It just makes me roll my eyes. I mean, I think gymnastics is exciting with or without a warm up. So if it’s gonna make people more safe, then I think let’s do a warm up.

SHALLON OLSEN: Coverage, I mean, coverage is, like, great, but, like, I think people would rather watch good gymnastics rather than see an athlete getting hurt.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): So to recap, when it comes to the Athlete’s Commission, their sole purpose is to serve as the voice of the gymnasts, and yet the gymnasts can’t seem to reach them, they don’t seem to reach out to the gymnasts, and they have a president who’s publicly voiced comments that are so wildly at odds with what it means to be an athlete’s advocate. 

When it comes to the FIG, they don’t seem to be doing anything to fix that, while, simultaneously, have put the whims of TV broadcasters above athletes’ safety.

It is hard not to feel like this is a broken system, one that leaves gymnasts on the outside of the decision-making process. But shutting the doors doesn’t stop them, it just means that the gymnasts have to find another way. So for those who still want to be heard, who want to make a change, they have to do it from where they are. From the outside.

That’s after the break.

[MUSIC]

BRENDAN SCHWAB: It’s very, very hard to change that system from within, and sitting on the athletes commission actually is sitting within the sport, not from what we do, which is to work, uh, at arm’s length with the sport. 

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): This is Brendan Schwab, the executive director of the World Players Association, an organization that helps protect and advocate for athletes.

And when it comes to the Athletes’ Commission, the group that’s supposed to represent the gymnasts within the FIG, Brendan says that even if the Athlete’s Commission worked the way it is supposed to, it would never really be able to put athletes first because the FIG controls it, and the FIG’s first priority is probably always going to be the FIG. 

BRENDAN SCHWAB: You know, we need to create a safe space for the athletes to organize and a safe place for the athletes to speak out.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): Right now, there really isn’t an independant safe space with the power to hold the FIG accountable and advocate for gymnasts. 

BRENDAN SCHWAB: What–what is really required is a voice that the athletes trust, and the foundational element to building that trust normally is for the athletes to create an organization which they own and control, and by acting collectively, they can start to discuss some of these issues in-in an equal way. 

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): What Brendan is saying is that the most effective and reliable way to ensure that athletes, and their safety concerns, are heard and addressed is to form an international union or alliance, and that when it comes to gymnastics, to women’s gymnastics, there’s this other factor that makes organizing both incredibly important and incredibly complicated… 

BRENDAN SCHWAB: How can we address the power imbalance in relation to children? 

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): So many of the top international elite gymnasts are minors.

BRENDAN SCHWAB: The athletes themselves are inherently vulnerable, children athletes are more so…but I also don’t think it’s necessarily feasible for thousands of children athletes to–to get organized, and this is something that I think the sports world is–is struggling to deal with.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): Brendan and his organization are doing a lot of research into this problem, but right now, there’s no perfect solution for how to advocate for child athletes. Brendan says, whatever that solution is, it begins with doing what the FIG and the Athletes’ Commission don’t seem to do: talking to the athletes.

BRENDAN SCHWAB: The–the starting point for these conversations is–is it has to be with the athletes understanding what their issues are and then helping them take ownership over a strategy where they can navigate their way through a lot of the challenges and not just waiting for the sports body to do the right thing.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): As the Tokyo Olympics were coming to a close, a number of gymnasts took to social media to speak out about the problem we’ve heard so much about throughout this story; the lack of touch-warm-up for event finals, and the public was listening. Press started writing about it, a petition got fifteen thousand signatures, and in response to this outcry, right as we we’re finishing this episode, the FIG came out and said… they’re gonna change it. They’re gonna reinstate touch-warm-ups. Which was huge! It meant, effective immediately, this dangerous situation is no more. It’s done, it’s fixed!  

And on the surface, it feels like reason for celebration, right? Change is happening! Finally! 

But when you step back and look at the bigger picture, when it comes to priorities, questions still linger. Like, why did the desire of TV broadcasters outweigh gymnast’s safety for 20 years? Why did that priority change only when they were in the spotlight and felt pressure from the public to do something? The way Danusia Francis sees it…

DANUSIA FRANCIS: That says that they definitely do care about their image, um, but it should be caring about the athletes first. 

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): Is it always going to take gymnasts speaking out to make change? Because right now, that’s certainly how it’s looking. So, I think it’s worth taking a minute to think about what that really looks like and what’s that asking of the gymnasts.

When I talked with Shallon Olsen, the Canadian gymnast we heard from in part one, about what it was like to run into these safety issues in the moment, on the competition floor, like when bad arena lighting has essentially blinded her mid routine…speaking up? It’s never really felt like an option.

SHALLON OLSEN: I think when something like that happens, you just try to, like, ignore it and don’t really bring too much attention to it because we don’t really want to make a huge fuss out of things. And that’s kind of how I am. Like, if there’s, like, a light shining in my face, I’ll just kind of try to focus on the bar the best you can instead of complaining and saying that everything is wrong with the equipment because the organizers — I don’t think they want to hear a bunch of complaints about the athlete not being able to do their bar routine because they can’t see the bar, like, a lot of complaints would be like more concerning, but if it’s just a few, then they wouldn’t really take it into consideration, I think, personally.

ARI SAPERTEIN (host) [IN TAPE]: How does that make you feel? 

SHALLON OLSEN: Uh, um, I think it makes me a little bit anxious. It was a rough situation to be in, but I’m wondering now if I should speak up more about it if it’s such a safety issue because… it seems so easy. You just tell them and, like, you would think they would do something about it, but I guess you have to have to speak up first if they’re actually gonna do something about it, right? 

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): “It seems so easy…” But think, for a minute, about being a young adult, about being a teenager; did you ever see something that you thought was wrong, but didn’t say anything? Maybe you were taught not to say anything, or maybe you were worried about facing consequences, or maybe you just didn’t really know how to speak up — didn’t really know what that looked like, didn’t really know what you could do.

Imagine that feeling at the Olympic Games.

It is asking so much of the gymnasts to be the ones to solve problems by speaking out. That is asking them to take on enormous responsibility, to be incredibly brave, to challenge the authority they’re taught their whole lives to defer to…it’s asking them to do all that, to be adults, when so many of them are still kids.

This is the culture of gymnastics, a culture that leaves gymnasts feeling like they’re being a nuisance by expressing their safety concerns, a culture that lets safety come second to entertainment, a culture that has no effective line of communication to hear or seek out the thoughts of the athletes — athletes who this entire sport is built on. It’s this culture that stands in the way of a safer, healthier version of the sport.

For now, at least, what’s changing is not the culture of gymnastics, it’s the gymnasts. And part of the reason this generation is speaking out, despite how hard it can be to do, is because when the gymnasts speak out, they’re finding that there are people out there who care, who want to hear what they have to say, who want to help; the fans, the press, maybe you. And the gymnasts say knowing that, that feels like a first step. 

[MUSIC]

SHALLON OLSEN: I’m hoping that people can actually understand what we go through now, like, what athletes experience, because a lot of people are looking from the outside and they don’t really know what happens on the inside…

[MUSIC]

ARI SAPERTEIN (host): Blind Landing is reported by me, Ari Saperstein and produced by me, Christian Green, and Myka Kielbon. Our story editors are Stefanie Ritoper and Ellen Weiss. Our gymnastics consultant is Jessica Taylor Price. Editorial assistance from Noah Camuso, Kate Mishkin and Lauren Phipps. Translation help from Cyril Babeev, Carrick Reddin and Anastasia Karelina. Additional production help from Cassanda Leff, Zachary Molino, Katherine Rae Mondo, Andres Salazar and Michelle Waters. 

And a special thanks to all the gymnasts who shared their insight with us for this story, including Csenge Bacskay, Julie Erichson, Danusia Francis, Elisa Haemmerle, Courtney McGregor, Paula Mejias, Marina Nekrasova, Megan Ryan, and Raegan Rutty. 

As always, thanks for stopping by.

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