Unbelief and bewilderment. Those feelings dominate many former gymnasts who Tuesday with frowned eyebrows heard the decision of the gymnastics federation KNGU about the resumption of the top sports programme of the Dutch gymnastics women with the same trainers who previously were not welcome after revelations about cross-border behaviour. “A kick after for the victims”, judge Stasja Köhler. “A knife in the back,” says Anouk Visser-Jong.
The gymnastics world has been on fire for weeks after trainer and former national coach Gerrit Beltman admitted in July that he had mistreated and humiliated young gymnasts in the past. That confession brought up an avalanche of unpleasant memories in former gymnasts.
Many of them came forward with their experiences, but also with accusations towards trainers who are currently working for the KNGU or trainers who are currently coaching gymnasts from TeamNL.
A few days after Beltman’s confession, the KNGU, which has now launched an independent investigation into possible abuses, suspended the current national coach Gerben Wiersma and national coach Vincent Wevers and asked four club trainers to stop their work for the time being.
That decision gave former top gymnasts like Köhler and Visser-Jong the idea that there would finally be a clean sweep in the gymnastics world. Especially since director Marieke van der Plas announced last Tuesday that between 21 July and 27 August another hundred reports about abuses in the gymnastics world were received by the federation and the Centre for Safe Sports Netherlands.
In the past, the former gymnasts themselves have also made various reports about cross-border behaviour by trainers, but with their complaints and criticisms they initially found no response from the union. This time they thought that their cry for help had been heard, but that feeling has largely disappeared since the press conference of the KNGU, at which it became clear last Tuesday that the trainers are allowed to go back to work.
“I had a little hope. That the people who are now at the KNGU took us seriously,” says Köhler, who already wrote the book ‘The Unfree Exercise’ with Simone Heitinga seven years ago. “The recommendation from the investigation that followed was at the time: clean up. That recommendation ended up in a drawer.”
Visser-De Jong was a top athlete between 1991 and 2001 and was part of the national team for years. She was forced to leave the sport in 2001 after a serious accident in the gymnastics hall. She broke two cervical vertebrae during a training session and tore a dorsal vertebra.
“The trainer told me to get up. Someone finally took me to the hospital. Later a union official came with flowers and the announcement that I was not allowed to share anything about it with the media”, she now looks back on the intense period. “‘That would damage the image of the sport.”
“This board has no idea what it has to do with”, she observes. “It seemed for a moment that the gymnastics federation wanted to give us former athletes recognition, but soon the press conference was about what should happen with the current team. We still don’t know what they will do for us. We haven’t heard any concrete plans”, Visser-Jong notes disappointed.
Petra Witjes, in 2009 the first whistleblower about the abuses in gymnastics, was also listening with great amazement to the statements of technical director Mark Meijer and director Van der Plas.
“Once again, the feelings and emotions of those who have been damaged are ignored. The signal given by this decision is disrespectful. The KNGU mainly looks at the present and the future, but that doesn’t make sense if you don’t know the entire past”, says Witjes, who already denounced the working methods of Vincent Wevers in an interview with the CCeit in 2009.
Former gymnast Wyomi Masela, who trained under Vincent Wevers from 2000 to 2013, also said she recognized the allegations of mental humiliation. Nevertheless, she now understands the KNGU’s decision and says that the stories of the past must be separate from what happened in the past.
“However, I do think that the KNGU should now take the initiative towards those involved from the previous periods of which many brave gymnasts stepped forward. Priority is the welfare of these ex-turnsters but also that we see that the KNGU takes the stories seriously. This is independent of TeamNL, which I think should go their way towards Tokyo 2021 as planned”
Köhler, Visser-Jong and Witjes understand that the current generation wants to keep the Olympic dream alive, but they don’t understand the way the KNGU does it.
“I don’t think the gymnasts should be deprived of their dream. But if that happens among trainers who are being investigated and have been reported of cross-border behaviour, then I find it very strange that they are back in the gymnastics hall now”
“The announced investigation didn’t start until Tuesday. You can’t change things in gymnastics until you reflect for yourself. The KNGU must take responsibility itself, especially look at what the federation has done wrong in the past”, advises Visser-Jong.