A report has highlighted the toxic culture in Australian gymnastics ©Australian Human Rights Commission

The Australian Human Rights Commission has outlined a "toxic culture" within Australian gymnastics, with a damning report revealing that a "win-at-all-costs" approach had led to power imbalances, a culture of control and a tolerance of negative behaviour.

The Australian Human Rights Commission was last year asked to undertake an independent review of the sport’s culture and practices following at least 20 athletes coming forward with abuse complaints.

Athletes said they had suffered physical and verbal abuse during their careers.

The allegations came in the wake of the airing of the Netflix documentary Athlete A, which detailed the sexual abuse scandal in the sport in the United States.

The Australian Human Rights Commission said it has found that current coaching practices create a risk of abuse and harm to athletes, while hiring practices for coaching staff lack accountability and there are inconsistent policies and systems to regulate their behaviour.

The report said there was insufficient attention to the understanding and prevention of the full range of behaviours that can constitute child abuse and neglect in gymnastics.

An ongoing focus on the "ideal body" was also criticised in the report, particularly with young female athletes.

The focus, combined with inappropriate and harmful weight management and body shaming practices, was criticised due to the risk of athletes developing eating disorders and disordered eating which continue long after the athlete has left the sport.

Complaints of abuse and harm were found to have not been appropriately and adequately addressed.

The report said a lack of internal expertise and resources and complicated governance structure were contributing factors.

The "win-at-all-costs" approach and acceptance of negative and abusive coaching was criticised, with the behaviour seen as leading to a silencing of the athlete voice and an increased risk of abuse and harm.

Mary-Anne Monckton was among the Australian gymnasts to have spoken out about abuse in the sport ©Getty Images
Mary-Anne Monckton was among the Australian gymnasts to have spoken out about abuse in the sport ©Getty Images

"Some of these risk factors also exist in many other sports, including significant power disparities between athletes and coaches and administrators," the report said.

"However, the Commission found that unique facets of gymnastics, including the extremely high proportion of young female athletes, contribute to a high-risk environment for abuse and for the maintenance and reinforcement of negative societal stereotypes and ideals around gender.

"The Commission also identified a 'win-at-all-costs' culture that prevailed across the sport and found that this created unacceptable risks for the safety and wellbeing of often very young gymnasts.

"Gymnastics at all levels of the sport - national, state and club - has a responsibility to put the wellbeing and safety of all athletes, particularly those who are children and young adults, at the forefront of everything it does.

"Effective cultural change for every athlete in every gym across the country will only be realised when strong leadership at all levels of the sport commit to a collaborative and holistic approach to addressing the challenges outlined in this report."

The Australian Human Rights Commission made 12 recommendations, which Gymnastics Australia has vowed to implement.

Recommendations include transforming education to skills development for coaches, as well as strengthening coach engagement and accountability.

Broadening the sport’s understanding of child abuse and neglect was another recommendation, along with encouraging and promoting athlete empowerment and participation.

The report calls on Gymnastics Australia to develop a skills-based training and support programme for all athletes to prevent and address eating disorders and disordered eating, as well as resources relating to body image, weight management practises and eating disorders, to improve consistency and support effective implementation.

The report instructs Gymnastics Australia to investigate all matters regarding child abuse, neglect, misconduct, bullying, sexual harassment, and assault externally of the sport.

Establishment of interim and ongoing oversight over relevant complaints at all levels of the sport has also been recommended, as well as a referral and reporting telephone service operated by Sport Integrity Australia.

The organisation has been told to align its current governance with Sport Australia’s sport governance principles more consistently and effectively, while a national social media policy should be established.

The report calls on Gymnastics Australia to provide a formal acknowledgement and apology to all members of the gymnastics community in Australia who have experienced any form of abuse in the sport.

Gymnastics Australia said it will adopted all 12 recommendations made in the report and issued an apology.

"Gymnastics Australia unreservedly apologises to all athletes and family members who have experienced any form of abuse participating in the sport,” a Gymnastics Australia statement read.

"We also thank the athletes and other community members who engaged in the review process and acknowledge their bravery in doing so.

"Gymnastics Australia thanks the Australian Human Rights Commission for its considered findings and will adopt all 12 recommendations contained in the report."

The review found systemic issues in Australian gymnastics ©AHRC
The review found systemic issues in Australian gymnastics ©AHRC

Gymnastics Australia continued: "We look forward to working with our state and territory associations, clubs and athlete community and also Sport Integrity Australia as part of this process.

"The Board of Gymnastics Australia will oversee the response to the report.

"The Gymnastics Australia Integrity Committee, that was established last year, will provide oversight of the implementation of the recommendations.

"We will regularly and transparently update the community on our progress.

"While important work has been undertaken in recent years to improve policies, education and support mechanisms for our athletes and coaches across child safety and athlete wellbeing, there is clearly more to be done.

"The Gymnastics Australia Board and management acknowledge this work needs to be underpinned by transformational cultural change across all levels of gymnastics in Australia.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission said it conducted 47 semi-structured interviews with 57 participants as part of the review.

This included current and former athletes, their families, staff, coaches, and other relevant personnel.

Reviews are ongoing in several National Gymnastics federations worldwide, after concerns were expressed by athletes over their organisation's culture.

The full report can be accessed here.