Gymnastics Ireland suppressed a personal apology letter to a young gymnast whose treatment at a medal ceremony sparked international outrage, and have refused to acknowledge or tackle systemic racism in the sport, her family say.
Video of the event in March 2022 shows a judge handing out participation medals to a line of young gymnasts, but ignoring the only black girl. A photographer, coach and other officials look on without intervening, with an audience of hundreds in the stands.
Despite the official setting, Gymnastics Ireland officials declined to attend mediation, effectively casting the incident from March 2022 as a purely personal dispute between the family and one woman, the gymnast’s family said.
GI, the sport’s national governing body, did not make any commitment in public statements to investigate the incident, implement anti-racism policies, or improve protection for athletes of colour. For 18 months, it did not apologise to the family.
“Its unbelievable that you treat a little girl this way,” her mother told the Guardian. “It’s a systemic problem, because when you [GI] don’t speak out, the message is that you are happy for it to go on.”
Her mother is not being named to protect the privacy of the girl, who is a minor, and because of concerns the family could become targets of racist abuse. The official in question has denied any racist behaviour, and had wanted to apologise to the family for the snub. The girl did eventually receive a medal.
Soon after the incident, Simone Biles, the American gymnast considered by many to be the greatest of all time, contacted the family and sent the girl a private video message of support. This month the footage went viral again and Biles went public with a message of support for the girl and condemnation of her treatment.
It “broke my heart to see … There is no room for racism in any sport or at all,” she said on X, formerly Twitter. Her teammate Jordan Chiles, an Olympic silver medalist, also condemned the video. “This is beyond hurtful on so many levels.”
As international outrage mounted, GI put out a statement saying it had “expressed concern” to the family, and “issued” a written apology from the judge. That was widely misreported as an institutional apology from GI. “I don’t understand why media kept saying they offered an apology,” the gymnast’s mother said.
GI said on Sunday they had initially handled the incident as a “member-to-member complaint”, and “only recently became aware that the family wanted a public apology” from GI. The board sent a letter of apology to the family on Sunday, and would make it public on Monday, they added.
In response, the girl’s mother said the letter came too late and did not address core concerns, saying: “After this horrendous incident, who wouldn’t think they should apologise? They have just sent me a letter this evening. It took well over a year, and after millions of people internationally have been disgusted by the incident.
“It is useless to me, because they are not addressing the issues of racism and safety. I would love to hear them say things like ‘the next black child who comes into gymnastics will be safe’. There is nothing like that.”
Welcome to Ireland where people get away with racism! This little black girl broke my heart. Don’t skip this post without leaving a million heart for her. Make her famous… pic.twitter.com/YYMIP1IALZ
— Mohamad Safa (@mhdksafa) September 22, 2023
During mediation, the girl’s mother discovered that the judge had written a long personal apology within days of the competition, and sent it to the GI official who was liaising with the family. It was never passed on.
Instead they were given a two-line unsigned apology, addressed “to whom it may concern” a year after the incident. The mother did not consider it an appropriate response to her daughter’s treatment, and had chosen not to share it with her. “They need to explain why that [original apology] was withheld,” the mother said.
She has contacted the police because she is concerned the publicity, particularly after the statement from GI on Friday, could make the family a target.
The institution appears focused on protecting their reputation, now the video has been seen by millions of people around the world, rather than young athletes like her daughter, she added. “We were not consulted before the statement went out. I’m even more scared … They are simply trying to vindicate themselves.”
The statement from GI said: “The official in question accepted fully that what had happened had not been acceptable but stressed that it had not been intentional.
“The official concerned said that upon realising the mistake they immediately rectified it and ensured that the competitor concerned was presented with her medal before she left the field of play.
“The official also expressed deep regret for what they described as an honest error and requested the opportunity to apologise in person to the competitor and her family,” it added. “This request was initially declined.
“A written apology provided by the identified individual has since been issued to the competitor and her family.”
Ken McCue, a long-term campaigner against racism in sport who has helped the family, said the failures of the GI to protect the girl and tackle racism in the sport were compounded by wider indifference from Ireland’s sporting and political authorities.
“We got no domestic support from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Irish Olympic Federation or Sport Ireland,” said McCue, who is co-founder of Sport Against Racism Ireland.
“We only got international support from San Jose Gymnastics team, Simone [Biles] and Harry Edwards.”
It even took international pressure for mediation to begin, the family said. The judge initially declined to attend, and GI said they could not force her to take part. After the family contacted the Switzerland-based Gymnastics Ethics Federation, mediation was agreed.
However it became clear in the process that GI did not plan to participate as an institution, and were instead treating the incident as a personal failure by one individual, the girl’s mother said.
“All of a sudden, after a couple more emails, Gymnastics Ireland wasn’t on the email address list.” She raised the issue, but got no response, and at mediation found it was only the judge, her father and mediators. “When it was clear no one from GI coming, I considered walking out.”
GI said they “went to great lengths over the extended period to encourage participation in the mediation by both parties” and only recently “became aware that the family had expected an official representative from GI to be present at the mediation”.
The girl’s mother ultimately decided to stay, and discovered that soon after the incident the judge had written a long personal apology and sent it to the Gymnastics Ireland official who was liaising with the family. It was never passed on.
She became aware of the first letter, written in March 2022 soon after the incident, when the woman asked if the family had received it. “I didn’t believe her initially. But her email account showed the woman had sent a more detailed apology letter, and Gymnastics Ireland had withheld it from me.”