“It’s Beyond Frustrating”: Why Athletes are Still Being Abused

The Olympics are supposed to be an exciting and enjoyable experience, for athletes and for spectators. But for figure skating fans, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing could best be characterized as stressful and depressing.

After the team event – the first skating event on the schedule – it was revealed that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the favourite to win the women’s event, had previously tested positive for a banned drug intended to treat chest pain. After an emergency hearing by the Court for Arbitration in Sport, Valieva was allowed to continue competing, but the medals in the team event were not awarded. Valieva ended up placing fourth in the women’s event, and her teammate Alexandra Trusova, who came second, had an emotional meltdown at rinkside, shouting that she hated skating and would never go on the ice again.

While watching all of this drama and turmoil unfold, I couldn’t help but think that for almost 30 years we’ve known there were problems in the sport of skating. In 1995, sportswriter Joan Ryan’s book Little Girls In Pretty Boxes painted a terrible picture of abusive coaching, unhealthy training practices, and incredible stress placed on young figure skaters and gymnasts. Thankfully, as an adult skater, I got into the sport when I was old enough to be in control of what I did. But it’s no secret to anyone who follows skating that, even after well-documented investigations like those in Ryan’s book, there are still very significant problems within the sport.

So I decided to get in touch with Ryan and see if she would be willing to be interviewed about whether anything has changed, 30 years after her whistleblowing. She kindly agreed, and we talked this week. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.


Fiona McQuarrie [FM]: What’s your take on the doping scandal at the Olympics?

Joan Ryan [JR]: The Washington Post asked me to write an op-ed on that a couple of weeks ago, and, you know, I wrote this book 27 years ago now. There has been change on the gymnastics side, unfortunately because of Larry Nassar, and because of the gymnasts themselves. They have risen up like an army, and they are the ones that are going to make sure it finally changes. That’s the only reason I have any hope that it’s going to change now after all these years.

I haven’t followed figure skating as closely over those 27 years, but the US skaters certainly seem healthier to me. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but clearly the total destruction of two of the three Russian figure skaters is a clear sign that it’s dysfunctional. There’s clearly abuse going on. Even their coach kind of acknowledged it: you know, this is what we do.  It’s normalized in her own mind for sure, just like Bela Karolyi did. And because of the kind of country and culture that Russia is right now, under Putin, I don’t see that it’s going to change at all.

It doesn’t matter that it was a global stage, and we all saw it and we were all appalled and shocked. Nothing will change, and we’ll never see those three girls ever again. They’ll just move on and be tossed away like Kleenex, because there’s a whole group of other girls that have been recruited at four years old and have lived with these horrible coaches in order to win a gold medal.

FM: When you wrote the book, the primary focus at that time was on fixing things within individual federations, but there’s also the larger international stage of the Olympics. Do you think it’s feasible to have some international standards, to enforce better standards across all countries?

JR: Yes. And it’s talked about and talked about and talked about, because there needs to be a safety net for these girls. There has to be. How can we tolerate inviting them to come to the Olympics when we know what they went through to get there?  And each year we support it. This year there weren’t huge ratings, but usually there’s huge ratings for figure skating and for gymnastics. And then it leaves us for four years, and we don’t think about it again. It comes around and then there’s all this hubbub, and people say all the same things. Oh my gosh, it’s child abuse. Oh my God, how could we let this happen? And then it goes away for another four years. And we keep saying the same things.

When I was seeing those stories, I was like, when are we going to stop saying things and do something? It’s up to the national governing bodies to take care of that. I don’t know the ins and outs of all of it, but the IOC makes money hand over fist, and the national governing bodies know which side the bread is buttered on. It’s not about putting out healthy but maybe not gold-medal winning athletes. It’s just about the gold. It’s just about that. And they’ll do anything to make that happen.

The governing bodies turn a blind eye, and they create these programs, like SafeSport. Okay. And what’s that done for us? So it’s beyond infuriating for me. It was clear from my book, and then from so many things after that, what was happening in the United States. And if this is happening in the United States, it’s worse in Russia. It’s worse in China. And it’s not addressed and it’s not looked at in the reality, which is that it’s legal child abuse.

FM: When the book came out, what was the reaction of the sport federations? I know that other authors like Christine Brennan, who wrote about abuse in skating in some of her books, got some pretty serious pushback. Did you experience that as well?

JR: Oh yeah. I mean, I was the devil incarnate. I covered gymnastics at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and that was a year after the book came out. I went to a press conference that was in this huge ballroom because that US gymnastics team was super popular, everybody loved them. I was in the audience and they were on this long dais with coach Marta [Karolyi] on one side with the other coaches. I asked a question, and I could see a coach say something to the gymnast next to her, and then look at me. And then it went like that game of telephone, it went all the way down and they just were like, that’s her, that’s her.  I was infamous.

And, they said, oh, you only wrote about bad things, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Bela Karolyi told USA Today that I never talked to him, even though there was a tape recorder on the desk and I have the tape. He didn’t reconcile that with this person who came to interview him. I gave him a friendly interview because I had already interviewed all the athletes and just had to ask him, okay, what’s your memory of this, because this is hers. I don’t think he imagined when he saw the book, or somebody told him what was in the book, like a scathing expose, that it could have been written by the person who sat in his office.

So, yeah, it was bad. And then of course, later, those same gymnasts are now saying these things were going on during the time while they were competing. But they are just in line at those times, you know, they don’t say anything about anything.

FM: You mentioned mechanisms like SafeSport. USFS has now put in some other practices, like what they call “two-deep leadership”, which is basically that two adults need to be present anytime there’s a conversation with an underaged athlete. I’m curious whether you think organizations like SafeSport and practices like two-deep leadership are actually making a difference.

JR: I can’t really say, because I just am not part of that world any more and I don’t go to any of the competitions. I moved on. But I think any step, no matter how small a step, is a good thing, and now we need much more of those steps. I’ll never criticize a program or an initiative that is actually being carried out, but I couldn’t really say what the conditions are these days and what’s the impact on these girls.

FM: The book discussed the idea of labour law or employment law as a way to improve conditions for young athletes. I found that really interesting because I haven’t seen that suggested in a lot of other places, particularly for underage athletes. This is one of my academic areas, so I’m quite interested in this idea of applying it to young athletes. Since the book came out there’s been some movement in that direction for older athletes, like trying to have NCAA athletes classified as employees. So I’m wondering if you think that labour or employment law is still a mechanism that could be used to protect younger athletes.

JR: I do. I think it should be really explored for sure. You know, by someone like you and other people that know the ins and outs of how it can be applied. Like with child actors, they had to come up with something for these child actors so that they weren’t exploited. No one will ever convince me that the elite gymnast and what they do from nine in the morning till four in the afternoon, or whatever it is, isn’t work. It is work.

And they’re working for a very specific outcome that will lead to money. They can have sponsors even when they’re young. I don’t know if there’s any rules against them having sponsors. Certainly the Olympics don’t. The Olympics are now open to whoever wants to write a check. So I would think there would be a pretty cogent argument and a compelling one to have labour laws be that safety net that we haven’t seen yet. Because we can’t rely on the governing bodies or the parents or the coaches, so who is supposed to step up and make sure that the athletes are safe?

FM: In my own experience in skating, I’ve seen parents literally start with their kids in learn-to-skate programs and go all the way to international-level competition. And so many parents are learning as they go. There’s no guidebook to say, this is what it looks like when your child is an elite athlete and costing you thousands of dollars a year. And I’ve also seen, and I think many people involved in skating would say this too, very bad behavior by parents, towards their own children and also towards other skaters who they see as competitors or threats to their own child’s prospects. So what avenues do you see in regulating the role of the parent, or should there be regulation around that?

JR: That’s a difficult one. On one hand, in an ideal world you want the parents overseeing this for their young child, and advocating for them, and drawing some boundaries on what the coach can and can’t do with their child. On the other hand, the parents can be just as bad as the coach. The really weird stuff just is normalized and the abnormal becomes normal, so these parents lose complete perspective. If somebody from the outside just walked in and saw this, you’d be like, oh my God, what is going on in here? These girls are, you know, 10 years old, and the parents are just sitting there talking to each other –  and it’s a lot of mothers, generally – and they’re saying, okay, I may be bad, but I’m not as bad as her. It’s a culture that becomes very, very isolated, with its own rules and expectations, and values and principles. And a lot of these girls aren’t even going to school, and it can become this very warped world to be in. I don’t want to make it sound like every gym is like that, because they’re not, but the preponderance of this obviously is in the super-elite elite training.

FM: I was reading some articles about coaching cultures. And one of the points that was made was that if a coach, when they were a competitor, was raised with what an outsider would probably call abusive coaching practices, they might reproduce that because they think that’s good coaching. How do you break that cycle? How do you get people to realize that you don’t have to be an abusive coach and that you can be tough without being abusive?

JR: Part of it is to nail these people. To say, I know you really love to coach, but you’re not going to coach under our governing body. I mean, there’s supposed to be training. Something that came out of the book was that the gymnastics people said, we have a manual, and the coaches have to get some sort of certification if they are going to be on the floor with the athletes.

But they can coach them anywhere else and they don’t have to have any certification at all. If they’re going to actually be with the athletes, what does certification do? Nothing. I mean, what does it say if you’re not going in there to check on them and whether they’re actually applying what they’ve learned? That’s just not something that people are motivated to do. And it’s hard. I mean, who are you going to send in there?

One thing I think should happen, and in some places this does happen, is that you have a former elite competitor as an advocate, a regional advocate that takes on this responsibility. You can have several of them take on the responsibility of really getting to know these athletes, so that the athlete can pick up the phone to report things and just to have a relationship. And also have the advocate show up unannounced. The governing body can mandate that no matter what is happening, the advocate gets to go in, and if he or she is not allowed in on a moment’s notice, then there are huge consequences. It would be almost like child protective services, you know, we’re going to show up and see what’s going on in your house.

FM: There was no social media when you wrote the book. Do you think social media makes a difference for athletes now, positive or negative?

JR: That’s a good question, because I’m not sure how they use it now. For my book, you wouldn’t really know what was in it unless you happened to catch the time I was on Oprah or 60 Minutes, or in the newspapers, and then it’s gone. But now people can take up a campaign on Twitter and that’s really easy to do. Maybe it’s a lever that we can pull to hold the national governing bodies to account, so it doesn’t just float away and no one hears about it again.

FM: And for some of the skaters and gymnasts, it’s also a way to present their case directly from them. Assuming that they can put up with the abuse that is inevitable from the trolls.

JR: Yes, and you know, I think the Larry Nassar case obviously broke all that open. Every gymnast was supporting other gymnasts on Twitter and Instagram. And that has really been positive because it is kind of peer to peer on Twitter. You follow them and you get it from the horse’s mouth. It’s not filtered through any governing body.

FM: The final question I want to ask you is, in the ideal world, what do you want to see happen to make things better for the young athletes? Because, as you’ve said, the same problems are happening 30 years on. If you could burn it down and start it from scratch, what would you do?

JR: Well, I would make the coaching fraternity one that is a professional fraternity, like teachers. With female figure skaters and gymnasts, you have to understand what an eight-year-old’s psyche and emotional makeup is. And then what a 12-year-old’s is, and what’s happening to their bodies as you’re training them. When are they ready for certain moves and repetitive moves? How often are they looked at by doctors and, and psychologists and all that? The stakes are high, when we see how much damage can be done by abusive coaches. And it lasts a lifetime, you know. The eating disorders are just crazy, and the suicide attempts like cutting are with the stress and the anxiety, the pressure and the feeling trapped. Like, I can’t leave because my parents have put so much money into this.

So I would love to see that coaches, especially at the elite level, have to be professionals on more than just how to teach a triple axel. These young kids are put in your care and we want to know that you’re committed to the whole deal, their emotional and physical safety. Do I think that will ever happen? No.

FM: I did say “ideal”.

JR: Yes. It’s ideal, and I don’t think that’ll ever happen. That’s why college gymnastics, I mean, yes, there are problems with some coaches, but in general, those girls are so much happier because they really feel like they’re a team. The US team has become that, like with Simone Biles’ squad, they did seem like they had a really nice camaraderie that we hadn’t seen in earlier years, and the colleges generally have that too. It’s a much more joyful experience and there’s no better feeling of being part of a team, because there’s always somebody there and you just feel safer in a lot of ways. I mean, yes, there is the competitive thing, but you’re part of the team and you’re doing it for your college and all that. I think that seems like it’s pretty healthy.

Joan Ryan’s latest book is Intangibles: Unlocking The Science and Soul of Team Chemistry.

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