More than 50 reports have been received by GymFed in recent months about psychologically offensive behavior in gymnastics. She accused Marjorie Hills, coach of Nina Druel and the Belgian girls’ team, among others. Along with Yves Kiefer and the Flemish Gymnastics Federation, she admitted to psychological abuse from the past in April. They formally apologized after several months together. Despite the allegations, they were allowed to stay so as not to disrupt the preparations for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. At the end of September, it became clear that they would also continue until the 2024 Games.
The fact that Heuls is now nominated for Coach of the Year has been met with a lot of misunderstanding. The Flemish Sports Jewel is an award given by the Flemish government, so former gymnasts turn to Sports Minister Ben Waits.
Below is the Minister’s full open letter.
Honorable Minister Waits,
We recently read an article in the newspaper: It has made the penalties for cruelty to animals more stringent. The fines are much higher. It’s about time. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
As people and as gymnasts, we unfortunately get a very different feeling when reading the articles about renewing contracts for women’s gymnastics coaches in Ghent and having one nominated for Flemish sports gem in the category of Top Sports Coach of the Year.” It was almost surreal to read this.
Whoever abuses or neglects animals will be severely punished (and rightly so!) but trainers who have abused children and young women for years will get an extension to their contract?! This is completely incomprehensible.
We learned yesterday that the Flemish Gymnastics Federation’s head coach, who was convicted, will also receive a nomination for the Flemish Gymnastics gem as well as an extension of her contract. Sports Coach of the Year. For us and many others, this is not one bridge, but several bridges that are very far away. For us, this is the moment when we choose not to wait any longer and trust the system. The system that should have protected us all these years and now, after all our testimonies, must ensure that change is coming.
This is the moment when we stand up and fight for ourselves, all the victims and future generations of young gymnasts. Because unfortunately our voice turned out to be unheard, our testimonies and our call for a safe sporting climate were not loud enough.
A few months ago, the expert report of the Independent Investigation Commission that you created was released. You will no doubt remember their finding: years of systematic abuse of dozens of gymnasts. After such an overwhelming conclusion, the coaches had to publicly apologize and solemnly promise to do things differently. This allowed them to survive until the Olympics without any problems. A decision we can still understand, the current Olympic generation should definitely not be the victim.
The Olympics ended and she won a gold medal. A great moment for Belgian gymnastics. Historic achievement. But this feat should not be at the expense of the well-being of dozens of gymnasts. An achievement that certainly shouldn’t take proven abuse off the table. This achievement should be the beginning of a new beginning.
Instead of a fresh start, we now see a missed opportunity. The trainers will remain in service and may soon be rewarded with an award from the Flemish government for their malpractice. We wouldn’t be surprised if a new series of shocking stories appeared in a few years.
Today we ask you, does the well-being of athletes really outweigh performance?
How is it possible that the contract of these coaches has just been extended less than six months after the difficult completion of the IIC report?
And how can a coach who has abused gymnasts for years be nominated for the gem of Flemish sport?
Will it help us, and really help us, to achieve a safe atmosphere in Belgian gymnastics?
#GymnastAllianceBEL, dozens of brave gymnasts and bystanders who testified about malpractice in women’s gymnastics in Ghent
Voices in Sport, the organization representing victims of abuse in sport