Serious allegations of psychological and physical abuse have emerged from elite former New Zealand gymnasts, as an "insidious" culture driven by fear in the sport continues to be exposed globally.
A Stuff investigation has uncovered allegations of a culture that normalised emotional manipulation, fat-shaming and athletes being forced to compete on serious injuries.
Gymnastics New Zealand has launched "urgent enquiries" in response to the "shocking and distressing" allegations, chief executive Tony Compier told Stuff .
Allegations have been made by seven former New Zealand elite athletes – covering both artistic and rhythmic gymnastics.
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The alleged abuse has resulted in some elite athletes living with life-long injuries, reliance on painkillers, anxiety, and ongoing management of eating disorders.
The former gymnasts claim there is a normalised culture within the sport – both in New Zealand and globally – associated with weight, serious injuries, over-training and verbal abuse from coaches.
The abuse is alleged at both club and international level, including while they were representing New Zealand at international events such as the Commonwealth Games, and dates back to at least to the 1990s.
"Gymnastics NZ is not aware of any of the specific allegations, however we would deeply regret any athlete being treated in a way that made them feel bullied or unsafe," Compier said.
"We do not in any way condone body shaming, physical, emotional or mental abuse, or pressure put on athletes with regards to food and weight, or performing whilst injured."
There is also alleged sexual inappropriateness by male judges.
The two judges identified and spoken to by Stuff acknowledged the inappropriate behaviour occurred.
One incident involved a judge attempting to put sunblock on and tackle a young athlete while visiting the beach in Hawaii.
The judge said the incident was a "dumb thing to do". He said the "misunderstanding" was "sorted" by a GNZ committee at the time and he wasn't sanctioned.
"I apologised," he said. "It was a scary time."
He said there were no guidelines regarding conduct back when the incident happened, but said GNZ has started to implement changes in the "last year or two".
Another judge sent a former athlete a message asking if she was "wearing a bra under that green dress?".
The judge said the message was inappropriate and is remorseful regarding his behaviour.
Stuff has chosen not to name the judges, or the coaches who are the subjects of other allegations made in the investigation, at the express wishes of the athletes, who were intent on exposing a culture and environment that needed to change, as opposed to individuals.
As with each of the specific allegations put to GNZ, Compier said they would wait to comment till after their own investigations are complete.
"We have, and would investigate any such behaviour should a complaint be received. As we have begun urgent enquiries into some of the matters you have raised, we would make no further comment on these allegations at this point."
Among other allegations several athletes say they were weighed regularly and bags were searched for food at major international events, including the Commonwealth Games.
One athlete said she recalls, at age 12, being told by a coach to "just eat an apple" for dinner.
Former Commonwealth Games representative and current judge Olivia Jobsis said the culture has not changed since she was an athlete.
"It is a cult and it's very insular. And it's very small," she said.
As an athlete she faced years of psychological abuse from a national coach and her body being pushed to the brink.
The coach has been contacted, but refused to comment and referred Stuff to GNZ.
Like others who have spoken up, she claims her injuries, including a recurring ankle injury that resulted in reconstructive surgery after retirement, were not taken seriously.
She was encouraged to "walk it off" and to remove a cast from her foot early so she could resume training.
Another athlete said her injury was so severe, doctors considered amputating her limb.
Jobsis' injuries, she said, were a result of over-training by the coaches. At 12 she was training more than 30 hours a week.
"We were punished with strenuous conditioning that was made to break us," she said.
"We … all cried at least once a session."
If she put on weight, she was lambasted by the coaches. She says one national coach engaged in "mind games" and ignored her for 18 months.
The coach declined to comment when contacted by Stuff .
"I was treated like a bad person, a worthless athlete and I shouldn't even be there."
Athletes claim they were watched at meal times and in dining halls. They weren't allowed to eat at training and consumption of water was frowned upon.
"You get looked at like you're a pig if you had too much," Jobsis said.
Threats of bag searches for food were also prevalent including international events, she said.
Verbal abuse was allegedly a common occurrence in a range of settings, including, on one occasion, in the middle of Los Angeles airport while dressed in team uniform.
She said it happened often in the gym.
"The whole gym would stop when [the national coach] was yelling at us, or if we were being emotionally ripped apart or belittled," she said.
"It would be so intense and awkward. Everyone would feel shocked but no one ever stepped in. Not even once."
After retirement, she moved into coaching then judging. She said an "insidious" culture still remains within the sport, as do many people who drove it.
"Some things are better, but not really. They make it out like there's more support [but] there's no teeth.
"I just want them to say sorry."
Athlete One, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believes "one of the driving forces" behind the abuse was the "win at any cost" mentality and pressure put on them to perform to ensure GNZ received on-going funding.
"The culture of abuse was coming from people wanting to keep their jobs and prove that they are the best at their jobs and get results. There was an aspect of competitive, personal ambitions for the coaches and federation staff but there was also a financial incentive."
Athletes were allegedly told the entire sport was reliant on their results to survive.
"That was an additional pressure. We were already under a lot of pressure. It wasn't a motivation. Everyone was counting on [us] to do it no matter what," she said.
Athlete Two, who represented New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games and also did not wish to be named, claimed her abuse started when she was eight.
She was being weighed regularly and stretched beyond capacity.
"Those early years were just so bad," she said
"We were constantly in fear. We were screamed at. We were stretched until we cried. We would be screaming our faces off and it was accepted as normal."
She said she was applauded by coaches when she lost weight during her time as an international, but by this stage she was in the depths of a severe eating disorder.
She said her mum intervened and got her help, and GNZ and her coach encouraged her to see a psychologist. Her mum confirmed this to Stuff .
"There was some effort to get me out of that state," she said.
"[But] you didn't realise it was born out of years of abuse then. I felt like it was my fault I had got to that point."
"Nobody in there was looking after us. It's [just] so accepted," she said.
"Medical staff, parents, coaches, judges, gym managers, there was nobody."
As an adult, she has suffered chronic problems from being stretched too hard as a child and has osteoarthritis in some of her joints. She said she is still managing negative thoughts associated with eating.
She hopes by speaking out it will help change the sport for the better.
The claims by New Zealand athletes align with other gymnasts from around the world. Athletes from Australia and the United Kingdom spoke up in the wake of documentary Athlete A , which highlighted years of abuse of USA gymnasts by team doctor Larry Nassar.
An independent investigation is currently underway in the United Kingdom by UK Sport and Sport England, while Gymnastics Australia has asked other athletes who were abused to step forward.
Compier said the organisation has been monitoring the global response to abuse in gymnastics.
"We would urge [New Zealand athletes] to reach out to us directly with the full details so that it may assist any investigations where possible, offer an apology and also to provide support to those impacted.
"None of the behaviours outlined are considered appropriate by Gymnastics NZ."
Ashley Abbott, the New Zealand Olympic Committee's public affairs and communications director, said the allegations had not been brought to the organisation's attention until now.
"We are concerned to hear of these allegations and it underscores for us the need to continually advocate for the wellbeing of athletes – particularly minors," she said.
"We have seen concerning reports from overseas and must acknowledge that we are not immune.
"The issues … [are] both concerning and saddening and reflect methods that do not support overall athlete wellbeing."
Abbott said the NZOC was not aware bag searches were happening at Commonwealth Games or what the athletes were being told to eat. She said these occurrences did not support a "positive culture".
"Healthy, balanced nutrition and appropriate access to food that supports the complete energy needs of an athlete, particularly in training and competition, is imperative for an athlete's overall health and wellbeing," she said.
"We have an experienced health team on site to provide advice and support for athletes and their needs and we encourage athletes to engage with these professionals with any concerns."
Abbott said the NZOC was "saddened and concerned" to learn athletes were pressured to compete on serious injuries. She said the organisation continues to evolve its practices with an "athlete-centred approach".
"The wellbeing of athletes is a priority for the New Zealand Olympic Committee and we continue to work with the New Zealand Athletes Commission, Sport NZ and HPSNZ to highlight the importance of this issue and implementing robust processes in the Games time window."
She mirrored Compier's sentiments regarding athletes speaking up.
"We encourage athletes, particularly minors, to raise any concerns which are then passed to the appropriate person or organisation, taking into account confidentiality and safety," she said.
"There is more generally the HPSNZ Interim Complaints Authority and we encourage athletes to use this service to report issues."
Sport New Zealand CEO Peter Miskimmin said the allegations are "deeply concerning".
"… we would like to express our empathy to those involved," he said.
"It is imperative that sport is safe for athletes, participants and all those who work and volunteer around the sport. Wellbeing is paramount at all times."
He encouraged athletes that have experienced abuse to speak up "so that an appropriate, independent process can be undertaken".
"Sport NZ will then be able to work with Gymnastics NZ to ensure this process is safe and timely, and that any appropriate action is taken," he said.
He also said those in sport need to be mindful of their expectations of athletes.
"Gymnastics has become a sport based on early specialisation, however very few gymnasts have represented New Zealand at the Olympic Games," he said.
"We therefore urge parents and others to have a realistic view of a child's potential and, as is important with all young athletes, to ensure that a focus on performance and winning is not driving behaviours that compromise athlete well being or turn people away from sport.
"Fun, development and safety are far more important."
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