Gymnastics: Swiss coaches resign amid abuse allegations, poor performance

More gymnasts have been coming forward with allegations of physical and emotional abuse. PHOTO: SCHWEIZERISCHER TURNVERBAND - FÉDÉRATION SUISSE DE GYMNASTIQUE/FACEBOOK

ZURICH (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - Trainers for the Swiss Gymnastics Federation's (STV) women's team resigned en masse on Wednesday (Sept 1) following an ethics investigation that upheld athletes' complaints of psychological abuse and after a series of poor performances.

The ethics committee's report, which was presented to the STV's leadership on Aug 27 and made public on Wednesday, recommended cutting ties with the coaching staff.

"By mutual agreement, it was decided that the current coaching team would relinquish the leadership of training with immediate effect and be released from their duties," the federation said in a statement.

The committee's investigation found violations of the Swiss Olympic Ethics Charter during the period from 2016 to 2019 "and that in particular the mental and physical health of female athletes was not sufficiently protected".

The STV initiated the review in November after two athletes said they had faced harsh training conditions and disparaging comments about their eating habits and body weight.

"I am deeply saddened by the investigation report and apologise on behalf of the STV to those affected for what happened," STV director Beatrice Wertli said. "The psychological and physical integrity of the athletes is our top priority."

The STV described the resignations as a fresh start for the women's team, which - with the exception of star Guilia Steingruber, a 2016 Rio Olympic Games bronze medallist - had no realistic chance of qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Athletes' mental health has been under heightened scrutiny following the recent withdrawals of star American gymnast Simone Biles and Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka from high-profile events.

More gymnasts have been coming forward with allegations of physical and emotional abuse, including hundreds filed with Britain's gymnastics federation.

In July, the US Justice Department found the FBI dragged its feet in probing sexual abuse allegations against disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

On Tuesday, USA Gymnastics and a court-appointed committee representing sexual abuse victims of Nassar, the former national team doctor, filed a joint plan that would allow the federation to emerge from bankruptcy and would include a US$425 million (S$571.4 million) settlement with those in the sport who were victims of abuse.

The plan, submitted to the US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana, would end the onslaught of Nassar-related lawsuits against the federation and would compensate the 500 or so gymnasts - including Olympians like Biles and Aly Raisman - involved in the proceedings who say they have been harmed by someone in the sport.

Many athletes abused by Nassar, who molested them under the guise of medical treatment, have been in mediation with the federation since 2018, when USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy protection as a way to settle the growing number of claims and compensate victims.

The US$425 million offer in the current plan is nearly double the sum USA Gymnastics offered as a settlement in early 2020, when it suggested giving US$215 million to the Nassar victims. That plan was immediately rejected by many Nassar survivors as too low, and it was also rejected by the court, partly because third parties, like the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee, were not contributing funds.

To make the current plan official, all of the insurance companies involved in the settlement - including the company that insures Martha and Bela Karolyi, the former women's national team coordinators - need to agree to fund the US$425 million payout. The bankruptcy court would also have to certify the plan, and the individual victims will vote on it. A majority of the claimants would have to accept the plan, and that majority must account for at least two-thirds of the monetary settlement.

In an e-mailed statement on Tuesday, USA Gymnastics expressed confidence in the proposal.

"After extensive discussions, this plan has been jointly proposed by USA Gymnastics and the Committee," USA Gymnastics said in a statement, referring to the committee of sexual abuse survivors involved in the negotiations. Many of the insurers support it as well, the federation said. "We anticipate that this plan will be confirmed later this year and greatly appreciate all parties' efforts to get to this point."

The settlement offer is much lower than the US$500 million Michigan State University agreed to pay the more than 300 girls and women who were abused by Nassar, a long-time employee of the university. But Rachael Denhollander, who was abused by Nassar and is a member of the survivors' committee that helped negotiate the proposal filed in court on Tuesday, said the plan was about more than just money.

"I will say that the survivors deserve help with their medical care, and therapy is not cheap, so I do think they deserve compensation," she said. "But it would also be in the best interest of everyone to see actual change and reform to take place in the organisation. That's what we were hoping for. Change was our goal."

Denhollander said that the survivors' committee had accepted the plan only after USA Gymnastics agreed to a list of provisions geared toward reforming the organisation and making the sport safer for its athletes.

One calls for the establishment of a truth and justice commission, which would examine how Nassar had been able to operate in the organisation for so long and molest so many athletes and would come up with ways to prevent such abuse, and the enabling of it, from happening again.

"The non-monetary provisions of this plan are absolutely key," Denhollander said. "It is reform and change for the next generation. If USAG does indeed work with survivors to see these provisions through, it would be groundbreaking."

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