Is the world of gymnastics more permeable to certain forms of violence?



A few days ago, former gymnasts from the France team testified in a documentary by France Télévisions, claiming to have suffered acts of violence and harassment from certain supervisors. Following these revelations, the Ministry of Sports initiated administrative procedures as well as the opening of an investigation. Other similar, even more dramatic, facts have been denounced in recent years, particularly in the United States. Is the world of gymnastics more than others a place conducive to this type of violence?

A military legacy

A historic Olympic discipline, which has been characterized by increased feminization since the 1980s, gymnastics mobilizes and devotes younger athletes than in many other exercises. As with any other sport, excellence is highly dependent on the structural framework that governs the practice, in other words the place, the institutions and the associated values. However, concerning gymnastics, the work of sociologist Bruno Papin on the training of the elite has clearly underlined the military heritage of the discipline, and the way in which this past shapes the bodies.

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“The military origin of gymnastics gives this sport strong values ​​of order and discipline”, the researcher reminds us, while specifying that competition is a key element in understanding the learning of this practice. Indeed, during these competitions, “the alignment of the gymnasts which precedes the collective salute of the team to the judges before the warm-up period, as well as that carried out by the gymnast before and after his evolution on each apparatus, symbolizes the recognition of the hierarchical order of the world of gymnastics, while the changes of apparatus in the form of parades to the rhythm of the music recall the order and discipline that surround this practice”.

“And then I decided to publish the story of my attack on Facebook”

The sociologist adds that “These rituals are uses legitimized by young gymnasts which reinforce their belief in the validity of their practices and remind us of the order established between the different players in this practice. They are the expression of the rules of order and discipline to which the gymnast must submit vis-à-vis the historically constructed hierarchy of this sports institution.. It then appears that access to the very high level is conditioned by the incorporation of standards, and by this very fact, by an acceptance of forms of domination by supervisors. And it is in this specific context that the violence takes root, since the phenomenon of influence finds all its legitimacy there.

As sociologist Philippe Liotard notes on the coach/trained relationship: “With his technical authority, the trainer can indeed justify the most painful exercises and the most humiliating vexations. Facing him, the athlete under the influence is a being whose entire personality is at the service of performance. » Consequently, all humiliations, in particular those linked to weight, are found, within the gymnastic space, justified by these relations of domination specific to the quest for performance.

Inability to speak

But the denunciation of such actions only occurs, most often, once the career is over. A question therefore arises: why do athletes not takethey did not speak at the time of the facts?

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As Bruno Papin points out, “the concern for the construction of a high-performance body makes rest and recovery times sacred in and outside the gymnasium. The sporting asceticism adopted by the gymnast presents itself as a principle of management of his capital-body”. Thus being a gymnast is based on a concrete upheaval in the relationship to oneself, inside and outside the sporting world. The psychologist Claire Carrier (“Adolescent champion, constraint or freedom”, PUF, 1992) explained, in her work on teenage gymnasts, that entering high-level training was like an initiation rite, a passage in a sacred world, far from the profane aspects of the discovery of the discipline.

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In this sense, denunciations of violence seem impossible because they are perceived as the price to pay in this quest for performance. In this configuration, the world of gymnastics refers to what the psychologist Marc Lévêque calls “sporting ideology”, which he denounces. In other words, the psychological adherence reinforced by access to sporting excellence reinforces the acceptance of certain types of violence and above all the silence around them, since “Thanks to its anchoring in ideology, the sports subject engaged in action and in competition is less affected by the emotional impact of the events that punctuate his career. The results, pitfalls, vagaries of sporting commitment… are minimized or integrated more easily because a strong belief in the values ​​defended lessens their impact”.

Moreover, this existential upheaval is accompanied by a disturbance of the initial social environment. In reality, integration into the world of training leads to an arrangement of space and time around the practice, with the consequence of a disruption of social ties. For example, comrades become both friends and competitors, the coach assumes parental attributes – while the latter sanctions and excludes the athlete if he is not performing -, while parents, who believe to the commitment of their children, borrow new roles specific to the intensive practice. This is how the principles of protection and recognition defining the social link, taking up, here, the thought of the sociologist Serge Paugam (“The social attachment. Forms and foundations of human solidarity”, Paris, Seuil, coll. “The Color of Ideas”, 2023”), are distorted. And faced with a lack of protection or a denial of recognition, the athlete struggles to find a reliable interlocutor to express his suffering.

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In the case of this case, the investigation relates to certain supervisors and trainers, and it is not a question of calling into question the work of many other professionals who train young athletes. But it also appears very clearly that the orientation of a high-level sport based on inter-self and on a quest for performance pushed to its climax remains the breeding ground for relations of domination far removed from the emancipatory prospects that democratic society calls for, especially through sport.



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