An interview with Ms Ivana Hong, GEF Council member and athlete representative.
Ms Ivana Hong is the athletes’ representative on the Council of the Gymnastics Ethics Federation (GEF), which was founded in January 2019 to protect athletes and other participants in gymnastics from harassment and abuse. A member of the US gold medal team at the 2007 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships and now a retired athlete, Ivana is also chairing the USA Gymnastics Athletes' Council. At the beginning of this Olympic year, she explains why it is key for sport organisations to listen to athletes, provide appropriate communication channels, be action-driven and thereby build trust.
What was your motivation to represent the athletes’ voice on the GEF Council?
I’m all for, and always will be, having athletes’ voices heard and the athletes’ perspective taken into consideration in every situation. However, often the possibility to bring in the voice of athletes is not taken sufficiently seriously by sport organisations. So, if I have the opportunity and ability to contribute to that, I’ll do it.
From your experience, how can athletes help initiate positive change in sport in general and regarding the serious issue of abuse in sport in particular?
I believe it’s too easy to say that athletes should just share their inputs and concerns. Athletes can only do this if they are provided with appropriate opportunities and forums, feel safe in sharing their voice, and are certain that they will not face any form of retaliation by anyone. When that’s the case, athletes can trust that their feedback and concerns are both heard and taken into consideration.
Having said that, everyone is responsible for the positive change that needs to happen in the sport of gymnastics, athletes included. It must be a community effort. Without each person’s participation and ownership in this effort, we will not see much progress. What athletes experience in their gymnastics journey carries way beyond their time on the competition floor or the gym. It impacts their childhood, adulthood, and professional life. The sport of gymnastics and its participants must be positive forces in creating nurturing, growth-oriented and healthy relationships to help create a solid foundation for life after gymnastics.
What are your key recommendations to any sport organisation?
I would urge all sport organisations to provide opportunities for athletes to share openly and safely any concerns, without fear of retaliation from any party. However, it must be considered that trust takes a long time to build. So, my advice would be to stay patient and be proactive in providing an inclusive, safe, and whole-human nurturing environment and community for all constituents to be a part of. For instance, allow open forums to receive feedback on how the organisation is doing to ensure the existence of accountability and the taking of necessary action. Keep your community informed and follow up with them.
It’s very important that constituents know who to reach out to whenever they want to voice an opinion, feedback or their concerns. Organisations and its members need to be fully committed and open to listening and hearing athletes; truly listening and taking decisive action on what they say they will do. As I said before, trust is hard to build; reaching out to athletes one time asking for their input will not cut it. Athletes are in vulnerable positions and they need to be shown consistently that they are truly cared for in order for them to voice their inputs and experiences. Coaches and parents frequently are, due to the nature of our sport, in a more dominant position. Ideally, they should provide young athletes with the skills and examples of what a healthy relationship looks like between coaches, parents, teammates and themselves. However, this is not always the case. The process for change is not easy nor quick, it takes time to embrace and move towards positive change, but with genuine and open communication and accountability, I strongly believe that it’s possible.