Five thousand euros: generous, practical, quick to implement. This was Monday’s summary of the financial arrangement that gymnastics association KNGU and sports umbrella organization NOC-NSF will make for gymnasts who have been victims of misconduct in the gymnastics hall in recent decades. It is not compensation, it was stated firmly during the press conference at Papendal, but a compensation; a gesture of acknowledgment for the suffering that no one, except for a single trainer, denies having been inflicted on the women concerned.
On behalf of NOC-NSF, chairman Anneke van Zanen-Nieberg apologized to the women. Over the years, the sports umbrella organization did receive signals that some coaches went too far, she said, even research reports were involved, but her organization did not go through with them. Reports were regarded as individual incidents, not as signs of an unsafe sports climate. “We saw them as loose trees. And no longer had eyes for the forest.”
It was almost the first time that NOC-NSF spoke out so strongly about its own role in the gymnastics file. The sports umbrella must guarantee a safe sports climate: this has not been done enough for years.
At the gymnastics association they were relieved with the statements of NOC-NSF. Director Marieke van der Plas hinted that it feels nice that she and her team are not alone in the settlement of what may seem to be the most shocking sports file of this century. At Papendal she spoke of a “day when we will do what we have failed to do before”.
Report Uneven Shelves
The KNGU will thus follow an important recommendation from the independent integrity and ethics committee. He has studied the report Unequal Leggers published this spring by Bureau Verinorm (on the deformed gymnastics culture) and agrees with the advice of the researchers to pay out five thousand euros to affected gymnasts.
This amount does not come out of the blue. It is the same amount given to the so-called Good Shepherd Girls, the victims of forced labor at the Roman Catholic institution of the same name, whose traumas only came to light a few years ago. One gymnast will be at peace with the amount. For others, it is nowhere near covering the emotional and physical damage they have left from their early years in the gym. Intimidation, belittling, ignoring: it has hit some people so deeply that they are unable to work.
“We should not naively think that five thousand euros is the solution,” said Van Zanen. It is just a gesture, on top of existing arrangements. If former gymnasts have incurred much higher costs that are partly or not covered by insurers, for example, they can also report to the KNGU and NOC-NSF.
The allowance is primarily intended for gymnasts who were subjected to a top sport regime as children and who trained approximately thirty hours a week. Nevertheless, the Ethics and Integrity Committee argues for generosity in the distribution of the money. “There is no hierarchy of suffering, no way of saying that what happened to one person is less bad than another,” the committee writes. “We want the sports world to look everyone in the eye at the same time and make the same gesture for everyone.”
No one dared to say on Monday how many gymnasts it would be. In the report Unequal Leggers the number was estimated at one hundred. The compensation is borne by the gymnastics association. If the KNGU can no longer afford it, NOC-NSF will help. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport has explicitly stated that it will not contribute. It does, however, offer assistance in setting up the scheme.
Despite similar testimonies in other countries, according to KNGU director Van der Plas, the Netherlands is the first country where gymnasts receive an allowance. It is also a milestone for Dutch standards. Athletes who suffered damage to their sports career were more often compensated, but this usually went through the courts. Not collectively.
Van der Plas noted that aftercare in the gymnastics file is not easy to achieve. Explain to a doctor why the gymnastics culture of yesteryear has had such a drastic effect on the lives of young girls – there are hardly any casualties from men’s gymnastics. “At Victim Support they really have to understand what went wrong in the gym. We as a union have no understanding of care.”
In the meantime, she cherishes the changes she has already been able to bring about. Less naked leotards. The abolition of a Dutch Championship for eight-year-olds. Jury members who come to her to tell her that they have not felt comfortable with the hard checkout culture on the mat for years. “Instead of judging gymnasts individually, we will also look more at team performance,” she said. Individually gymnasts are vulnerable. After all, the dark past of the sport has taught us that.