Gerrit Beltman, the Dutch gymnastics coach who once coached top Belgian gymnast Aagje Vanwalleghem, has admitted using “abuse and humiliation” to win medals for his teams.
In an interview with the Dutch regional newspaper Noordhollands Dagblad, Beltman admitted his behaviour was unforgivable, and confessed his shame.
“The behaviour I demonstrated is in no way justifiable,” he said. “I insisted on winning at all costs, and became hardened. I am deeply ashamed now. Never have I consciously intended to hit, to curse, to hurt or to belittle. But it did happen. I talked myself into it, and thought it was the only way to cultivate a top sport mentality. I blame myself for my failures.”
Beltman, now aged 61, worked with the Dutch gymnastics union KNGU until December 2010, after which he left to work in Canada. In his time with the KNGU he was national talent coordinator for women’s gymnastics.
In addition, he was the trainer of Vanwalleghem in 1999-2000, beginning in North Holland and later moving briefly to Ghent. She represented Belgium, winning medals at World Cup level, and making the all-round final at the Olympics in Athens in 2004.
The issue of abusive trainers in women’s gymnastics in the Netherlands has been simmering since 2011, when two gymnasts, Suzanne Harmes and Gabriëlla Wammes, revealed the widespread use of malpractices including physical and mental abuse.
The KNGU offered an official apology, but Beltman said nothing, until now.
And the problem is not confined to the Netherlands.
Aagje Vanwalleghem responded indirectly to the revelations on Instagram.
“Due to the very topical subject of mental and physical abuse among gymnasts around the world, I cannot help but address this issue, which has also been present here in Belgium since the start of my top-class career in 2000 until today, unfortunately,” she wrote.
“I have a lot of contacts in the gymnastics world who have asked me to sound the alarm, and as one of the pioneers of Belgian gymnastics I feel responsible to answer this question. I did this in recent weeks.”
The last comment refers to her contribution to a book published in 2016 titled Veerkracht (Resilience), in which she is interviewed on the topic at some length.
“I have made a commitment, together with the [Belgian Olympic and Interfederal Committee] BOIC to discuss this topic in a constructive way and to sit down with several parties who are in a position to improve matters, so that the present and future generations of gymnasts can enjoy gymnastics with pleasure, without having to be afraid to speak, to express their emotions, doubts and fears, without feeling that parents are being kept in ignorance and especially without feeling that their self-confidence and self-worth are being damaged, with often serious consequences in life after top sport.”
Beltman, meanwhile, stressed that the problem is not historical, but continues to this day.
“There were, and are, more coaches who behaved the same way,” he said.
“I stood next to them in the hall, saw that they were doing the same thing that has now dawned on me: psychological and physical flogging. For example, one of them is still involved in the current Olympic track. This person has not had to answer for their actions. Within the [KNGU] people are aware, but no action has been taken.”
Last week the KNGU announced it had received government funding for an independent enquiry into unacceptable conduct in gymnastics.