The Flemish gymnastics commission, Gymfed, has announced the setting up of a new ethics commission to look into allegations of abuse of young gymnasts by coaches.
The issue of physical and mental abuse of gymnasts during training has been a matter of concern for some years now, but came to a head last week when Gerrit Beltman, formerly a leading coach in the Dutch federation KNGU, gave an interview to a Dutch newspaper in which he admitted threatening and humiliating young female gymnasts to make them train harder.
Beltman was briefly the trainer of Belgian medal-winner Aagje Vanwalleghem, and now works in Canada. His mea culpa has now led to further revelations by other gymnasts describing how widespread the problem was and still is.
Dorien Motten, now aged 29, was a member of the national squad from 2009 to 2016, and posted on Instagram.
“This is a major step and it will have enormous consequences. But I have decided not to remain silent any longer. I feel a responsibility to ensure that young girls do not go through what we have been through. I admit I am a little bit scared because I am still an active gymnast, speaking about current coaches and the federation. But it is time for a change.”
During her time in the national team, she said, she was “humiliated, intimidated and bullied. Every day I was told I was worthless, lazy and fat and that I would not accomplish anything. When I cried, I was filmed so that the world could see that I was a crybaby and not strong enough to become a successful gymnast.”
Laura Waem represented Belgium at the Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, and her testimony is all too familiar.
“As an ex-gymnast I feel it is my responsibility to come forward and share my experience right now because I know there are gymnasts who are not (yet) in a position today to be able to do that without being adversely affected,” she wrote on Facebook.
Now the Flemish federation has decided to take action.
“Gymfed acknowledges that things have gone wrong in top sport coaching and deeply regrets that some athletes still have negative experiences,” the federation states on its website.
“We take the recent testimonials about our activities seriously. Gymfed is setting up an independent ethics committee on this matter and will ask those involved to further explain their testimonials to this committee. The federation guarantees expert, neutral and discreet treatment and ensures that it will work with the findings and advice.”
The commission will not involve present employees of Gymfed, including the president Lode Grossen, who chairs the federation’s existing ethics commission. That body will continue working with an emphasis on prevention, he said.
The new commission will take testimony particularly from gymnasts who were active in the lead-up to the 2016 Games.
Grossen meanwhile said much work had been done since 2016, and he now stands by his coaches, particularly in the improved circumstances. But the opportunity to admit to past failings had been missed.
“I said mistakes were made. I might have expected the same from my coaches.” It was never, he said, the intention to put medals above the well-being of athletes.
“But that certainly seems to have been the case in practice.”
The Brussels Times