Stéphanie Tijmes does not want to dwell too long on what happened to her as a gymnast. She prefers to look at the present and the future rather than the past. What are the physical, psychological, social-emotional and financial consequences of an unsafe sports climate? She thinks that there is far too little attention for that. “Although I understand that people want to know what exactly that means, transgressive behavior.”
Tijmes (29) takes a sheet of paper and reads what she wrote to the disciplinary judge: “It’s about power, abuse and medals. Trainers and federation officials take advantage of robot-controlled girls to achieve their own success. And everything is allowed, legalized and normalized: intimidate, belittle, insult, humiliate, abuse, mistreat, manipulate, isolate, sow fear, body shame, curse, regulate, punish, harass, take revenge, neglect, brainwash.”
In the documentary fog, which will be broadcast on BNNVARA on Sunday, a number of examples of cross-border behavior in gymnastics are discussed. But it’s mainly about what it does to you in the long run if someone doesn’t respect your boundaries. For example, we see how threatening it feels for Tijmes when her psychologist slowly moves his chair in her direction, as an exercise. She is startled, looks away, says her vision is blurry. “Why do I find it so scary?” she asks, crying.
In the documentary, more former gymnasts have their say, but filmmaker Sophie Kalker mainly zooms in on the recovery process of the woman who was groomed between the ages of six and sixteen by trainers Marc and Ilona de Wit, Frank Louter, Patrick Kiens and Gerben Wiersma for the international turntable.
You’ve spoken out about abuse in gymnastics before, but it must still be exciting, such an intimate documentary.
“Exciting is not the right word, because I have indeed told my story before. I am curious how the documentary will be received.”
Why did you want to participate in it?
“Danila Koster and I came up with the idea ourselves, in 2019. We had been trying for years to draw attention to the consequences of transgressive behavior in gymnastics. Not one of the gymnasts I know came out unscathed. All those girls who walk around with complaints, that’s not possible, is it? We thought it would be good if someone showed that they mean business. The gymnastics period was tough, but the period after that was perhaps even tougher. What do you do as a traumatized person when no one helps you? How do you hold your own in society? And what do you do with people who think you shouldn’t worry so much, ’cause you stopped gymnastics anyway? We wanted to convey in that documentary how intense the period after gymnastics is.”
Two weeks ago, NOC-NSF apologized to former gymnasts. “We failed to check whether reports had a structural background and whether recommendations were followed,” said chairman Anneke van Zanen-Nieberg. “We saw things as individual trees, but we didn’t see the whole forest.” What do you think of that word choice?
“It feels doubly. I’m glad it has been recognized. That NOC-NSF says: this has happened, it is still happening and we will not tolerate that. And: we will compensate it financially. For the first time in the history of Dutch sport there is such a form of damage recognition. On the other hand, why is it so late? And how is it possible that NOC-NSF saw the trees but not the forest? A report to the contrary has been published twice before. Conclusion at the time: the sports climate is unhealthy and can cause damage to gymnasts. I understand that they have to say something at NOC-NSF, but …”
… they have closed their eyes to reality?
“Correct. They have looked away. They have apologized for not seeing it as a system error. ‘We are now setting it up for you’, they say. And I’m happy about that too, but they have neglected to look at me for twelve years. Even when I – and many with me – indicated that something went wrong. I have to deal with the recovery myself, but it would have been nice if I had been supported in that.”
How would you have worded that apology yourself?
She is quiet for a moment. “I find that difficult to say. Look, it’s pretty hard — especially on yourself — to admit you haven’t seen something serious.”
Self-critical is different from empathetic.
“Well, that. I miss the feeling in the choice of words.”
Tijmes says with some trepidation that she had conversations behind the scenes with former gymnasts Danila Koster, Anouk Jong and Petra Witjes with chairman Van Zanen-Nieberg and general director Marc van den Tweel of NOC-NSF. They asked what they could do for the former gymnasts. Their answer: Make excuses.
When former minister Tamara van Ark of Health, Welfare and Sport wanted to sit down with gymnastics association KNGU to discuss the abuses, the former gymnasts (successfully) protested: ho, ho, aren’t you forgetting us?
Why do you doubt: should I tell you this?
“Because I’m not done there yet. Apologies have been made, fine, but that doesn’t mean the sport is healthy now. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport is now going to start a major study into top sports culture in the Netherlands. We are only at the beginning.”
An investigation into gymnastics was published in April. More than three quarters of the (former) top gymnasts who were approached for this purpose had to deal with inappropriate manners. What did you think when you heard that?
“The day of the presentation is one of the most important days in my recovery process. The research proves that what we have experienced is real. We have called for so long, but received no recognition. Now it is written in black and white that the system, the culture, is no good. I can still hear research leader Marjan Olfers say at the press conference: ‘That fear is not part of top sport. That was not part of top sport then, and it is not part of top sport today either.’ That hit me hard.”
Why those words?
“People with trauma often find it difficult to talk about their trauma. When others do that, it suddenly feels real. I recently also discussed abuses in gymnastics at the House of Representatives debate. Lisa Westerveld of GroenLinks said: shouldn’t we speak of ‘child abuse’ instead of ‘transgressive behaviour? This belongs in criminal law.’ Jeanet van der Laan of D66 thought that we were eaten up by the system. “You didn’t stand a chance,” she said. Quite confronting.”
Do you also think that ‘child abuse’ covers the load better than ‘transgressive behaviour’?
“If what happened in gymnastics would have happened at home, or at school, we would speak of child abuse. But in top sport it is tolerated and normalized because top athletes have to be tough to deliver. But top athletes are also people who have to guard their limits.”
Abused gymnasts receive 5,000 euros in compensation. A real amount?
She takes out another sheet of paper. “I have previously formulated a very political answer: ‘It is a symbolic amount that makes the recognition tangible. I am not making any statements about the amount.’
That sounds a bit formal. Can you say it differently?
“It’s about damage recognition, not compensation. In other words: it is about acknowledgment for the suffering that has been caused to us in the gym, not about compensation for the recovery. In the latter case, you will have to deal with criminal and civil law.”
A difficult route?
“Yes, because of statute of limitations and burden of proof. Where do you start? With which coach? I think it is a long and expensive process, which yields little financially. It won’t help my well-being either.”
Are you ruling it out for yourself?
“Not quite. The gymnastics association and NOC-NSF have apologized, but those who did this to us, the trainers, now get away with it very easily. Look at what happened to former national team coach Gerben Wiersma. The appeals committee of the Institute of Sports Judiciary recently ruled that he is guilty of transgressive behavior, but that he will not receive a sentence. What kind of statement is that? Ridiculous isn’t it?”
Because the culprit will go free?
She nods. Wiersma is not alone. In this way, gymnastics trainers who have been penalized can also work for another sports association. Or at a gymnastics association abroad. A look at the disciplinary case of coach Frank Louter – how long has it been running? The Dutch disciplinary system is not working.”
It remains silent for a long time on the question of what transgressive behavior has done to her self-image. “I am very strict with myself,” says Tijmes. “I have very high standards. As a gymnast, I performed when I was in pain, unwell or unhappy. I still do now. Often people say I look happy and good, but then I don’t feel healthy inside. If I don’t feel well, no one will notice me.”
You are an expert in appearances.
“Yes, because I was taught that. It’s a pitfall, but I’m aware of it now.”
The documentary ‘Mist’ will be broadcast on NPO2 on Sunday at 11 p.m.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 23 October 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 23, 2021
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