Min Coombes was just 15 when she competed for Australia at the 2000 Olympic Games in gymnastics.
- Min Coombes, Alison Quigley and Sophie Vivian have formed Athlete Rights Australia
- They want the group to support athletes who have complaints with sporting organisations
- The group’s formation follows a damning HREOC report into the culture of gymnastics in Australia
And, like so many other girls at that time, and since, in the sport, she suffered from relentless fat-shaming, as she was forced to maintain a weight well below what was natural for her body shape.
It was a process Coombes found traumatic.
She said she also suffered from emotional and verbal abuse.
Coombes quit gymnastics straight after the Olympics and took up aerial skiing, a sport in which she also represented Australia at a junior level.
She recovered psychologically soon after leaving gymnastics, but was reminded of her childhood trauma earlier this year following the release of a damning report by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) into the culture of the sport in Australia.
The report found gymnastics had enabled a culture of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, prompting an unreserved apology from Gymnastics Australia.
Coombes did not give any evidence to the HREOC inquiry, but said she devoured the report and set about finding other athletes with similar experiences.
On an international Zoom call — set up by UK gymnastics survivors — Coombes met Alison Quigley and Sophie Vivian.
Quigley did give a submission to the HREOC inquiry, outlining how she was groomed and raped by her coach when she was an elite gymnast in Melbourne in the 1980s.
Dr Vivian helped blow the lid on abusive practices at the Australian Institute of Sport when she told the ABC how, as a pre-teen girl, she had been bullied, subjected to painful physical exercises that caused injuries, fat-shamed and touched inappropriately.
She suffered years of trauma as a result.
It was on that Zoom call that Coombes first raised the idea of starting a not-for-profit organisation to help other athletes who had been either physically or psychologically abused and who did not know where to turn.
“I was horrified to learn that … all of the things that were happening 20 years ago were still going on,” Coombes told ABC Sport.
“If it was another 20 years and we look back and it’s still this sport that’s filled with scary corners for little girls, I’d just never forgive myself.”
So, a new not-for-profit advocacy group was born, called Athlete Rights Australia.
Bullying widespread in sport
Initially, Coombes, Quigley and Dr Vivian wanted to ensure that the recommendations of the HREOC report into gymnastics would be implemented.
But the more they spoke to athletes, the more they realised that injustices — as well as physical and psychological bullying — were not unique to their sport.
“We definitely have evidence that upwards of 10 sports are experiencing really similar issues. It’s just not as prominent and not as openly spoken about,” Coombes said.
“Harassment, abuse of different levels, and that won’t necessarily be sexual. It could be … physical, like all of the other types of bullying, intimidation.
“Toxic administration is a really big one,” she added.
Quigley — who has a law degree — is currently working on a Master of Laws qualification and examining child-safe policies in gymnastics in Australia.
“I come to this with a sense of wanting to get justice for people,” Quigley said.
“And they’re afraid to talk out, and when they do talk out — if they’ve got a coach who’s in a bad mood — their voices disappear and it’s so sad and I get so angry about it.
“If I could be a part of changing that system, it just gave my life such a sense of purpose.”
Dr Vivian recently completed a master’s degree on the neurodevelopment of child gymnasts who have been mistreated.
“Our central mission is to amplify the voice of the athlete,” she said.
The women said the new group would be a hub for information, while advocating for athletes and providing them with information if they had a complaint.
“So, If there is somebody [who] is being abused, or something is not right in their sport, there’s somewhere they can go for information,” Dr Vivian said.
“The idea is to build an athlete-led organisation so that, when you come through the process or you’ve got a complaint … there are people there [who] can answer your questions, give you that knowledge and help you through the process to say, ‘Look, these are your options’.”
These women also want Athlete Rights Australia to act as a watchdog.
“[We want] to make sure that the organisations that are supposed to be overseeing these processes are transparent, that the processes that are in place are actually happening the way that they’re supposed to,” Dr Vivian said.
They want to both work with and watch over Sport Integrity Australia (SIA) — the federal government’s body that acts as an independent group to hear athlete’s complaints against sporting organisations — as well as oversee safety and welfare.
“SIA is great and what they’re doing is fantastic, but maybe it’s not enough,” Dr Vivian said.
“There’s clearly a need for a watchdog.”
Athletes need a ‘voice’
Coombes said she believed the group could help SIA.
“Sport Integrity Australia is supposed to be part of that change — they’re new, they’re building,” she said.
“But it doesn’t mean that they’re going do it perfectly to begin with and I think we want to be able to have a voice in that.”
Quigley said it was important that athletes had a voice advocating for them that was separate to government.
“If you have a cohort who come from the Australian Institute of Sport — which was a government organisation — or any of those institutes, immediately you’re going to get a possibility of re-traumatisation,” she said.
The trio is hoping to register Athlete Rights Australia this week as a not-for profit organisation.
They want to eventually raise money to employ staff who can help and advocate for athletes at all levels, from grassroots to the elite.
They aim to run campaigns, produce educational videos and provide help for athletes who need help.
“We’ve already had a lot of people reach out to us: Olympians, ex-athletes, legal people,” Dr Vivian said.
“There’s a lot of people [who] are willing to kind of offer their services and time, and I think there are going to be a lot of ex-athletes who believe in what we’re doing, and we’re really hoping to get some more support on board at this point to help build what we’re doing.”
For three women who all say they experienced the very worst aspects of sport culture in Australia, change is the key word.
“That’s what we’re looking for: cultural change in sport,” Quigley said.