Body shaming, bullying and punishments: Inside the culture of abuse in Australian gymnastics.

This post deals with descriptions of abuse, and issues related to eating disorders. It may be triggering for some readers. 

One of Alex Eade's first memories of gymnastics has stuck with her like a birthmark – one she wishes she didn't have. 

She was 12 years old and bright-eyed, travelling overseas for the first time on the Australian gymnastics team.  

"It's a very daunting experience as it is," Alex tells Mamamia's daily news podcast, The Quicky

"Then when I was in training, I had fallen off the bars and my coach yelled at me and said it was because my bum was too heavy," she remembers. 

"There's nothing you can do about it. You can't go home and cry to your mum. You just have to suck it up and get on with your training. 

"That's really difficult for a 12-year-old girl to go through."

Yes, Alex Eade has enjoyed enormous success in her gymnastics career. In 2018, she won a gold medal for Australia at the Commonwealth Games. But whilst that competition brought a career high, it also brought a new low.  

"I don't think I've ever been more poorly treated than on that trip," Alex reflects. "We were trained beyond exhaustion. We were training more than 16 days in a row, which isn't okay for any professional athlete.

"They were all really heavy training days and because of the load, I suffered an injury to my achilles about two days before the competition... I felt so helpless and I just had to suffer in silence."


Alex smiled through the pain, performing her tumbles and turns whilst injured. 

"After I competed, my coach said that I was a liar and that I only faked that injury to get out of some training sessions before the competition. It was just a horrible trip."

As if the physical pain wasn't brutal enough, the mental abuse in the form of body-shaming and name-calling was just as savage – if not worse. 

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"We were all told that we had to lose two kilos before the competition which was just over a week away," Alex remembers. "It isn't healthy to lose that kind of weight in such a short timeframe.

"At mealtimes we were forced to eat off dessert plates and those are significantly smaller than normal plates and it was a way to portion our meals... We were basically being starved.

"We were constantly just told off and told that we would never be good enough and that we were going to embarrass our country at this competition."

At 25 years old, Alex has retired from gymnastics and she is now studying to become a doctor. But her tendency to not believe in herself – a mindset she developed from gymnastics – has stayed with her.

"I am still a very negative person and I really struggle with believing in myself. I think that that's something that I did bring from my gymnastics career. I struggle to see the positives."

Alexandra Eade won gold for Australia at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Image: Getty. 


Alex's story is one of the countless experiences of young girls, just like her, who have fallen victim to the world of gymnastics.

In fact, in 1995 an inquiry was launched into allegations of abuse in gymnastics at the Australian Institute of Sport. It was reported that a coach had hit a 10-year-old and that two other kids, of a similar age, had been called "fat" and "lazy". The inquiry concluded there wasn't any systemic or widespread abuse in Australia. 

Then, in 2018, another inquiry found no wrongdoing. But the allegations and anecdotes of abuse persisted. 

This pattern of mistreatment was brought to light in the Netflix documentary Athlete A, which focused on the investigation and subsequent conviction of Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team doctor accused of sexually abusing 500 young girls and women.

Watch: Documentary Athlete A on Netflix follows the story of Larry Nassar. Post continues below. 

Video via Netflix.

The documentary brought to light the sport's toxic culture and encouraged Australia's own gymnastics community to voice their experiences too.

Olivia Vivian, an Australian gymnast who competed at the 2008 Olympics and won silver at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, shared to Instagram that watching the documentary resurfaced memories that she had kept suppressed for years. 

Olivia, who is now a competitor on Channel Nine's Australian Ninja Warrior, tells Mamamia's The Quicky: "I feel like I have forgotten a lot of the really hard times and I think that's a result of it just being so normalised. I remember being yelled at all the time.

"It felt like Gymnastics Australia only cared about what you could do for the country at that time, no matter what the cost was down the line... I've had all sorts of injuries and a lot of them were because of over-training."

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Since the release of ‘Athlete A’ on Netflix I’ve experienced some relatable memories resurface after burying them deep deep down and bolting them under emotional floorboards. This past week I’ve seen, heard and listened to some fellow gymnasts release their stories and questioned myself as to whether I get involved as well. . I’m unsure if I’ll get much personal satisfaction or growth out of a post like this, but I’ve come to understand that it could help someone else and potentially the future of elite gymnastics, and that’s more important to me. . I know that every elite gymnast will have varied experiences, and even similar ones that might have varied effects based on different circumstances. Regardless I hope by sharing, it continues the #gymnastalliance & #gymnastallianceaus and can promote a healthier future for this beautiful sport. Swipe across in photos for my story (apparently too long for insta post)

A post shared by  Olivia Vivian (@oliviavivian) on


Hopefully, though, things for the gymnastics industry are about to change in Australia. 

In July 2020, at least 20 Australian gymnasts went public with their accounts of alleged abuse during their respective careers. It triggered the Australian Human Rights Commission to launch an investigation into the culture of gymnastics in Australia. 

Kitty Chiller, the CEO of Gymnastics Australia, said in a statement at the time: "Over the last couple of weeks athletes have shared their personal experiences of gymnastics in Australia. Many of those experiences are quite simply not acceptable. They reinforce the need for more to be done to change the culture of gymnastics, so that our sport can be trusted, respected and celebrated.

"In recent years we have made a lot of progress to improve policies, education and support mechanisms for our athletes across child safety, body positive guidelines and athlete-first and athlete-coach partnership thinking. We are committed to doing more.

"Gymnastics Australia has requested, and the Australian Human Rights Commission has agreed to undertake independent review of our sport’s culture and practices." 

Yesterday, the Australian Human Rights Commission delivered its independent review, finding the sport's culture enabled physical, sexual and emotional abuse. 

The report found "current coaching practices create a risk of abuse and harm to athletes" and that there was "insufficient focus on understanding the full range of behaviours that can constitute child abuse and neglect in gymnastics."

The sport's focus on 'winning-at-all-costs' and an acceptance of negative and abusive coaching behaviours resulted in "the silencing of the athlete voice and an increased risk of abuse and harm", the report found. 

It also noted gymnasts were "predominately young and female" - contributing to power imbalances.


Interviewees cited examples of strength training being used as a punishment, or "overstretching" exercises that had left them in tears or led to injuries - which in turn were often downplayed.

The report also found gymnastics at all levels had not "appropriately and adequately addressed complaints of abuse and harm" and didn't effectively "safeguard" children and young people.

Interviewees referenced grooming and inappropriate physical contact in public and private spaces - with one participant saying athletes had "signs and signals" to direct each other to avoid certain coaches, while parents often weren't permitted to watch or attend training sessions.

The report also found body-shaming was rife due to a focus on the "ideal body" - which for female competitors was a pre-pubescent "pixie-style" shape.

"There is a spotlight on the human rights of athletes around the world and many of the lessons of this review are critical to all sports in Australia," sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, who led the investigation, said.

"This is an opportunity for gymnastics in Australia to lead the way on child safety and gender equality."

Gymnastics Australia, which commissioned the report in August last year, apologised and committed to implementing all 12 recommendations. 

This post was originally published in August 2020 and has since been updated. 

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected] You can also visit their website, here.  

Feature Image: Instagram/alex_eade