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Father and son plant tree

A trainer should never call an athlete a “fat cow”

This text, dear readers, is for once not so much aimed at you as an amateur athlete, competitive athlete or health-conscious person – but at the parents among you.

Do you remember Larry Nassar? He is the former team doctor of the American Gymnastics Federation, who sexually abused girls and women for decades. Two years ago, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

An unimaginable crime for which I still cannot find the right words. There are no words for the misery that Nassar has caused, no words for the grief he has caused to these girls and women and their families.

I don’t want to talk about him any longer, but I want to focus on a question that concerns me, since I had to defend myself against a supervisor who caused suffering to both me and other gymnasts. He was the national coach, and our coach in Magglingen. For years, he bullied us, calling me a “fat cow.” To the public, I was the “sweetheart of the nation”, I was radiant, but only outwardly. Inside me, I was broken.

Whether psychological or physical, abuse is everywhere. And everywhere in sport. But gymnastics are particularly risky, because athletes here are particularly young when they are torn away from their home environment and sent to one of those intensive training centres, far away from all things familiar.

We were kids.

Today I know that what I experienced is based on a systemic problem. Hardly any other industry makes it so easy for perpetrators to incite victims against each other. And if someone does try to defend themselves and turns to a higher authority – the head of the federation, for example – then that does not mean that anything will change. Because the perpetrator, be it the coach or the doctor, may at first glance seem to be doing a good job. Maybe he’ll be successful. And because sport is all about success, only success, nothing is done.

I think there are two things that need to change. Firstly, wherever young people engage in sport, there is an urgent need for an independent body to which they can turn if they observe abuse or become victims of abuse themselves. Somewhere they can believe in, and somewhere that is in no way linked to the decision-makers and that really is only concerned for the well-being of athletes. How many times have I seen victims who tried to defend themselves being turned into perpetrators?

And secondly, we need parents who fully believe their children. And this is where I address myself to you. No matter what hopes you have for your children’s careers (that this is a problem in itself is another issue), never doubt them, not even for a second, when your child complains that they are suffering. Never think for a moment that the child’s career might be over if they go against the trainer. And please be attentive. I speak from my own experience when I say: it is quite possible that a child will not realise what is being done to them for a long time. A trainer should never call an athlete a “fat cow”.

I was lucky my parents listened to me. Giving me courage when I began to fight back. And yet it took years for the federation to dismiss the coach. And it took me much longer to recover from the wounds.

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