The decision by US gymnast Simone Biles to withdraw from her Olympic vault event citing mental health concerns will positively change the landscape for a whole generation of young girls rising up through the ranks, according to The University of Western Australia’s Dr Georgia Cervin, a former international gymnast and honorary research fellow in history.
“Simone Biles is a megastar. What she did by pulling out was so brave and empowering and shows that gymnasts are starting to respect their boundaries and be vocal about it,” Dr Cervin said.
“In the past, female gymnasts, who have so much control of their body in the air, have had so little control over what they’re able to say and do. Simone is leading the charge towards change.”
Dr Cervin’s comments follow the release of her new book Degrees of Difficulty which explores the history of women’s artistic gymnastics, a subject that was the focus of her PhD and which she’s spent the past four years investigating.
In it she argues that while electrifying athletes like Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci helped make women’s artistic gymnastics one of the most popular events in the Olympic Games, the transition of gymnastics from a women’s sport to a girl’s sport in the 1970s also laid the foundation for a system of emotional, physical and sexual abuse of gymnasts around the world.
As her book was being prepared for release, the Australian Human Rights Commission confirmed many of Dr Cervin’s conclusions, when its damning report Changing the Routine, commissioned by Gymnastics Australia in August 2020, found evidence of bullying, harassment, abuse, neglect, racism, sexism and ableism across the sport, which had been going for decades.
“Simone is one of the role models that I feature in the book and every single gymnast out there will understand how big a deal it is that she is speaking out and standing up for herself because they will all relate to the pressures of the sport, the coaches, the media, and the whole system,” she said.
“What’s she’s done is really important and it’s not just tokenistic because when she speaks, people listen. It’s a huge part of the push for better welfare in gymnastics, not just in terms of mental health but also physical health because we’re talking about a really dangerous sport.
“There have been high level international athletes who have been left paralysed and who’ve died through accidents in the sport and if Simone wasn’t feeling 100 per cent that she was right, then the consequences could have been deadly,” Ms Cevin explains.
Degrees of Difficulty is available from University of Illinois Press.