Thursday, April 17, 2008

Athletes In A Topical Climate

This is me taking a break from my giant Honours coursework essay.
*thumbs nose at Aristotle and other well-meaning, but very exasperating, dead Greek guys*

A special on ESPN aired the other night in the States, all about gymnastics. "Great" thought several of our American gymfan friends, "do let's tune in over our vittles and buffalo wings" (or something).

Well, clearly, it was not exactly the pre-Olympic hype they'd been hoping for.

It was a piece on a young female gymnast who'd been quote-unquote 'violated' by a male coach in a suburban gym. Apparently USA Gymnastics head Steve Penny got thrown into the mix but didn't go about addressing the problem the right way and now Dwight Normile's giving him and USAG a bit of a serve.

Now, I'm no expert in Law or other human affairs, so I'm going to boil my humble little opinion down to this:

It must be very hard for well-intentioned male coaches in a sport like gymnastics. A position like theirs is one under a lot of scrutiny and, let's face it, unsubstantiated public assumption. I don't know if it's the right word to say that I feel "sorry" for them, but I do acknowledge that it is difficult to handle being looked at askance when you explain to people what you do in your job. It is equally hard for men in positions like schoolteaching or swim coaching, but gymnastics is a sport that particularly fosters the development of young women (let's face it, before NCAA or a second Olympics kicks in, they're girls), and for support of certain skills, coaches do have to make physical contact with them. At certain times, the girls have to be supported around the waist, have to have a hand on their back, have to have their legs shifted. It's unavoidable, and sadly there are some who use this for negative personal pursuits. But surely the more fair-minded male individuals who treat their athletes correctly far outweigh that controversial minority?

'Comedian' Peter Helliar (and I use that term lightly because I would hardly classify him in the league of Billy Connolly, Tom Lehrer, Ross Noble or Eddie Murphy but alas I digress) once made an irritating back-handed remark about young female gymnasts getting hugs from their coaches; along the lines that coaches give them light hugs and little pats on the back "because they're grown men that know they're on international television", ergo all coaches are known child predators and abusers, they have to put on a good show for the cameras and anything beyond a pat on the back is a bit suss. But we know that isn't so. Some hugs aren't all bad, and it's unfair that male coaches have to hold back because of suspicion. I would hate to think poorly of Waverley's John Hart, VIS/VIG's Misha Barabach or the AIS' Valery Kaladzinski because they seem to have a good nature around their athletes, nothing negative at all. Let's not forget - they get results.

I remember one other fan not long ago mentioning that they got frustrated by someone sitting behind them at the Melbourne World Championships in 2005. The person kept scoffing and making scathing remarks about the way one of the American coaches intimately hugged Nastia Liukin. This fan had to turn around and shoot back, "He's hugging her like that because he's actually HER DAD."

I don't entirely agree with all of Dwight's comments. I personally don't think hugs should be vetoed or 'saved for winning the Olympics'. Emotion, particularly pride, is not conditional! And besides, not every country wins at the Olympics, so by Dwight's logic, athletes from the likes of Belgium and Croatia won't be embracing their coaches for a few decades yet.

Yes, a lot of bad light has been thrown (and still is bring thrown) on our sport but not every individual in a position of authority is guilty of suspect comportment.

Is Bela Karolyi the one to blame for this trend of poor decorum in coaching? I wouldn't say so. He is the one that, sadly, the non-gymnastics-going public keep in their mind whenever they watch, so to them most coaches are ferocious and unrelenting. He certainly did make people sit up and take notice of how coaches and athletes interact but I wouldn't necessarily say he set the bar for coach-athlete relationships. There isn't one specific person at fault in this confusing and concerning trend.

I don't know how this kind of situation can be avoided. I know it is difficult to monitor the motives and movements of every coach in every location. I would hate for male coaches to be removed entirely from the floor, or for them to endure criticism when they're innocent. I've got male mates who are coaches, though they're only in their early to mid-20's. They work with young girls who think they're the bee's knees, they have so much fun with them because they're like big goofy brothers who teach them 'cool stuff' and then show off a bit with 'cool stuff' of their own. If anyone were to make an accusation of these young men, I'd be first in line to give a resoundingly positive character reference. An accusation upon them goes with them for the rest of their young lives; they live and breathe their training and coaching, I'd hate for something to ruin that for them. Yes, innapropriate conduct is just that, and manipulation of an innocent person (particularly a young person), be it psychological or sexual, is unacceptable and the individual should be brought to the suitable form of justice.

But I don't think our sport overall should be condemned. This situation could happen in any youth-oriented activity. Times have indeed changed. My brother was in Scouts and we both did swimming lessons in primary school. There was never unease in our youth. I suppose, as others have suggested, police checks and offender 'register' checks are a good practice to maintain, though they're tedious for those with nothing to hide. I should know, I'm having to do one at the moment in preparation for my thesis as I want to conduct interviews in a primary school.
There are some who make the wrong choices in the way they run their clubs; ones who choose not to alert others to danger happening in their organisation. These are people who need to reassess how much they truly value the ongoing sucess of this sport in the public's eye and of course the safety of their athletes and families.

I'd be most interested to hear from any coaches (particularly male) or gym parents in general on this subject.
But anyway, that's just me and my thinkitty thinks.
*hops meekly off soap box but it's not very difficult as I'm not really that high off the ground anyway*


Anonymous said...

And I say a resounding "A-friggin-men, Hoo-bloody-ray, and Testify sister". As a male coach, now ex-coach, who has twice had unsubstantiated rumours circulated about him, I say thankyou for a reasoned, sensible and timely piece.

You don't have to have done something wrong, you simply need someone to believe that you have done it, and your career is effectively over. And that, my dear, SUCKS..... hugely. But, unfortunately, in this over-protective, over-suspicious, overly PC world we have created, that is the reality.

There will be no male coaches soon. Not because all men are as sick of the innuendo as I am, and taken the easy way out, but because clubs will soon no longer be prepared to 'take the risk' of employing a male predator.

After all, if you have a Y chromosome you MUST be a predator, right? Here endeth my rant


Anonymous said...

I am all for Police checks for anyone whom may work with children. If you have recently been a volunteer Mez and have filled out an WORKING WITH CHILDREN application, you shouldn't have to re-do it as l believe it lasts for 10 years.
Perhaps the only way to protect both coach's and gymnasts is to ensure that there is always more than one coach out on the floor.
If safe guards and practises are in place, that can only benefit all invoved from said abuse and false accusations.
I do hope anyonymous is wrong with his thoughts of there being no male coaches soon. Gymnastics in general, would be much worse off.