Blind Landing continues to shine a light on safety problems in gymnastics

Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports
Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports /

A new season of the podcast Blind Landing shines a light on the ongoing challenges even elite athletes face when raising safety concerns in gymnastics.

Glaring arena lights. Hard mats. Unfamiliar equipment. These are a few of the things elite gymnasts say they have faced in recent years when traveling to world championships and the Olympics that have compromised their safety and, in some cases, threatened their livelihoods — or their lives.

Gymnastics can be a scary sport to perform, but it does not have to be an inherently unsafe one. Gymnasts are trained to fall to minimize injury. Coaches know how to spot gymnasts working new skills, and how and when to intervene if needed. But when safety standards are ignored, even when gymnasts themselves point them out and say the unsafe conditions are affecting training and performance — that is when the sport jumps from thrilling to dangerous.

A two-episode special edition of the podcast Blind Landing about safety in gymnastics dropped last month, just before the gymnastics world championships in Kitakyushu, Japan.

The first season of Blind Landing, which debuted in July, focused on an infamous equipment debacle at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. There, the vault was set too low during the women’s all-around competition, injuring several athletes and forever putting the results of that competition into question. By telling that story in greater detail, the podcast highlighted an important issue in the sport: Listening to gymnasts who tell you something is wrong.

In Sydney, the podcast revealed, three gymnasts had spoken up about the equipment problem. Only one was heard. Against the backdrop of the Tokyo Games, where Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s team final and all but one of her individual finals because she was dealing with the twisties, a loss of air awareness that compromised her physical safety in the sport. Biles’ decision was questioned by backseat judges on social media, but not, importantly, by her coaches, her teammates, or the national or international federations.

And the support from gymnastics’ international governing body, the FIG, was notable because Blind Landing’s new season demonstrates that the FIG has often turned a blind eye to complaints about safety.

Perhaps emboldened by the lack of pushback to Biles’ withdrawal from most Olympic competition, other gymnasts began to speak up about safety issues, most involving equipment and lighting at major competitions.

Blind Landing interviewed 12 international elite gymnasts, many of whom just competed in Tokyo and all of whom have competed at either an Olympics or a world championship. Every gymnast they spoke with had at least one complaint about safety, according to the podcast’s host Ari Saperstein. Some of what Saperstein heard ended up in the podcast. Some did not; he allowed this reporter and FanSided access to his additional material.

“I got lost in the air doing a vault I had done for a long time because the lighting was so distracting,” said New Zealand’s Courtney McGregor of competing at the 2017 World Championships in Montreal.

“There’s not been an FIG competition that I’ve been to where I’ve seen a range of soft mats provided,” said Meg Ryan of Ireland, who competed at the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany,  and at the Tokyo Olympics. Many gymnasts interviewed by Blind Landing said there were typically only hard mats and landing surfaces at FIG competitions. “Sometimes, there might be an instance where a gymnast has had a bad fall in the training gym and they may want to use a softer mat when performing that skill again to gain back their confidence and prevent further injury, and I think that should be an option,” Ryan said.

And many gymnasts spoke up after the Tokyo Olympics to protest a rule — in place for two decades to expedite television broadcasts — eliminating touch warmups before event final competitions at major meets. McKayla Maroney, who won a silver medal in the vault final at the 2012 Olympics in London (and made a face expressing her disappointment that became a meme), took to Instagram Stories during the Olympics to talk about how a lack of touch warmup caused her, she thought, to fall during her own competition because her muscles were cold, and her disbelief that the gymnasts in Tokyo were still competing without such a warmup.

Jade Carey, the American gymnast who qualified to the Olympics by winning vault at a series of world apparatus cups, tripped on the approach to the vault during the Tokyo event final and narrowly escaped injury. Carey’s mishap prompted several prominent gymnasts, including former Olympians Chellsie Memmel and Laurie Hernandez, to question why touch warmups were not standard at the Olympics and other FIG meets.

The FIG did not respond to questions about why television broadcasts were prioritized over athlete warmups. Danusia Francis, who competed for Jamaica in Tokyo, said, “Now that there’s a media outrage – ‘Why aren’t you giving people one touches?’ – it says [the FIG] definitely care[s] about their media image, but it should be caring about the athletes first.”

The process for reporting safety concerns and complaints in elite gymnastics is deeply flawed

None of the athletes to whom he spoke for Blind Landing, said Saperstein, had any idea how to report a complaint with the FIG, nor how to contact the Athletes Commission.

Brendan Schwab, the executive director of the World Players Association, an organization that advocates for athletes in international sports, said that for gymnasts to have the most power in changing the rules and standards in their sport, they should form an international union or alliance. “What is really required is a voice that the athletes trust,” Schwab told Blind Landing. “And the foundational element to building that trust normally is for the athletes to create an organization which they own and control.”

A group of international elite gymnasts did organize online last year to raise awareness of abuse in the sport. Using the hashtag #gymnastalliance, athletes were able to shine a light on a problem that appeared to spare no national federation and to offer support and resources from around the globe.

Currently, competing athletes are represented on the FIG’s Athletes Commission by a representative, who is elected every four years during world championships. Catalina Ponor, a five-time Olympic medalist from Romania, was elected as athlete representative on Oct. 22, the FIG announced on Twitter, replacing Oksana Chusovitina.

Even though Chusovitina has competed alongside many of the gymnasts interviewed by Blind Landing since her tenure began in 2017, many of them had no idea she represented them to the FIG. Chusovitina, through her coach and translator, Svetlana Bogunskaia (herself an Olympic champion gymnast), said that more athletes should attend the meetings of the Athletes Commission; the athletes, in turn, wondered how they could attend when the FIG never told them about the meetings or encouraged them to attend?

Ponor responded via email to questions from Saperstein about her new role. Her responses were in English; they are reproduced here as Ponor wrote them.

“My goal in this job is to make the gymnast to believe that the communication between the coach and gymnast is so important, that they should work not only as a team, but as like a family too,” Ponor said. “I want that every voice to be heard, and when they talk with me to feel confident and comfortable.” She said she would make available several options for gymnasts to contact her. “Gymnasts, if they wanna talk with me, they can reach for me everywhere,” Ponor said. “At the competition, at the social media, and, of course, I will make a special email for everyone who wants to say something to me.”

Blind Landing, again, asks us why gymnasts go unheard when they raise issues of safety and well-being in their sport — a sport which is, after all, the most popular Olympic sport of them all. In its first season, we saw the repercussions of the failure to listen to gymnasts in a competition that broke many of them — some figuratively, some literally. In the second season, we see how the act of putting on a show is still valued higher than the safety of those doing the performing. When the efficacy of a television broadcast is prioritized higher than keeping gymnasts safe, the system is broken, and with the help of social media, we can now see behind the curtain what is really being sacrificed to keep up appearances in elite gymnastics.

Next. Blind Landing, Simone Biles and believing when athletes say there is a problem. dark