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Female Elite Gymnasts Vulnerable to Violence


Female elite gymnasts are particularly vulnerable to violence, says Associate Professor Natalie Barker-Ruchti.

‘This is partly because most gymnasts are young girls and partly because elite gymnastics is characterised by an authoritarian coaching style and a tradition of teaching the young athletes to be submissive and not complain about things,’ she says.

A recent legal case in the United States where a national team doctor sexually exploited hundreds of female elite gymnasts over a period of several decades is one of several examples of the vulnerability of elite gymnasts. But the vulnerability of female gymnasts is not just an American phenomenon, and it is not limited to abuse of sexual nature, says Barker-Ruchti, who works at the Department of Food and Nutrition, and Sport Science at the University of Gothenburg.

Longer Careers

Barker-Ruchti is the leader of a research project called Coming of Age, where an international team of researchers is looking for ways to make elite female gymnastics more sustainable – with fewer injuries, better training methods and therefore longer careers.

‘This is a sport where the athletes often start at a very early age. At age 15, many of them have been training for two-thirds of their lives, and in many cases at a dose of 20–30 hours a week,’ says Barker-Ruchti, once a gymnast on a Swiss national team.

The vulnerability of female gymnasts is a global problem. According to researchers in the ISCWAG research consortium, which stands for International Socio-Cultural research group on Women’s Artistic Gymnastics and was founded by Barker-Ruchti in 2016, the pattern of authoritarian coaching, psychological violence and questionable body ideals is widespread around the world. Moreover, the sport is permeated by the idea that the young athletes must be taught to be submissive.

Sweden Not an Exception

Sweden is not an exception. According to a report from 2012 (Blod, svett och tårar), Swedish gymnasts faced the same challenges as their counterparts in the other studied countries. ‘Since then, however, the Swedish Gymnastics Federation has worked actively to change the leadership style and coaching culture in the sport,’ says Barker-Ruchti.

Within the framework of the Coming of Age research project, Barker-Ruchti and her colleagues have been able to show how elite gymnastics can be more sustainable, not least through changes in training methods and in the attitude between coaches and athletes, where the voices of the athletes are to be given more attention. This, they say, will reduce the risk of overtraining, other injuries and psychological violence.

‘The average age of gymnasts has increased in recent years. Besides new training methods and a change in attitudes, the sport has been affected by for example changes in funding and competition judging. But there are still considerable national differences.’

Warning Signs

Barker-Ruchti points to some warning signs that for example parents of young gymnasts should look out for in order to avoid potential problems.

‘It might be that a coach wants to keep parents away from the gym, or that the training dose for a child increases very rapidly. The latter has many consequences, for example that the children become more isolated from family and friends and may not learn to develop independence and healthy ownership of themselves.’

‘Recurring injuries or the parents receiving few reports about the progress made are other warning signs. Recurring injuries may indicate that the coach is ignoring the young gymnast’s pains, injuries or need for recovery time,’ says Barker-Ruchti.

For more information, please contact Natalie Barker-Ruchti, email:, tel.: +46 (0)729 130117