The abuses in Italian rhythmic gymnastics: “Ham, fat ass. Gives you no shame?”

“Ham, get up off the ground. Look what a fat ass you have. It’s 40 degrees, you sweat and despite this you never lose weight. The one who heard —and relates to EL PAÍS— these words from her coaches in the Italian rhythmic gymnastics team is Anna Basta who lived through an ordeal of psychological abuse in the national team for three years. She won five world and three European medals with Italy, the team known as Le Farfalle [las mariposas] between 2016 and 2020. Basta is 21 years old. She left him at 19, before the Tokyo Games, “broken” because she couldn’t take it anymore. Her complaint joins that of two other heavyweight gymnasts (Nina Corradini, 19, and Giulia Galtarossi, 31) and she has made the Brescia Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Procurement (the sports justice body of the Italian Olympic Committee) open investigations.

The stories of the three are hard: report having suffered psychological abuse, forced fasting, offenses and humiliations about weight and, in the case of Galtarossi, eating disorders diagnosed in specific centers. Basta, she says, was told when she suffered a serious knee injury that it had been “for being fat.” Everything she did wrong was because she was fat.

The Italian gymnast confesses in a telephone conversation that after 13 months of therapy with a psychologist she is once again at peace with herself. “For months and months I hated myself, they made me feel useless, to make me doubt the usefulness of my existence, to hate gymnastics, which was my passion… I came to have panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia. At night when I fell asleep I dreamed of the scale and woke up crying.

She started rhythmic when she was four years old, after her parents unsuccessfully enrolled her in swimming. She started at the Polisportiva Pontevecchio club in Bologna. At the age of eight she became part of the competition group of that club, at 13 she already trained six days a week and five hours a day. In 2016, with 15, the national team, which already had her on her talent agenda, the record for the national team, which trains at the Desio modernization center (Monza province). She tells her Anna: “The hours and hours of training never weighed me down, I never experienced it as a sacrifice, because gymnastics was what I loved. Since I was a child I felt a special connection with this sport. I was fascinated by gymnasts, seeing them compete with a smile.”

His was extinguished a while after entering the national team. When did she start not feeling well? “The first year I noticed strange situations that had never happened to me before, but I adapted to them because nothing traumatic happened to me, I was calm because I was where I always dreamed of being and because I had never had problems with my weight or with my body.” What does she mean by weird situations? “The fact that after breakfast we were weighed in front of everyone in our panties. The fact that they looked at you funny if you ate something in public, nobody did it, it was all in secret. I did what most people did, I started to feel uncomfortable eating a plate of pasta in front of the coaches.”

Basta recounts that in 2017, her coaches – of whom she does not want to give names – sent her a message after seeing a photo of her vacation. “You’ve gained weight, it’s not good.” That’s where the ordeal began. “They made me notice all the time how, according to them, fat I was. If I twisted my ankle stepping on the ball and it hurt, it was because I was fat. If one day things didn’t turn out the way they thought, it was because she was fat. If they saw me dull in an exercise, it’s because I was fat. They started making nasty comments to me in front of everyone: you’re like a ham. You have a fat ass like a Pandora [dulce típico navideño italiano]”. She measures 1.69 and at that time weighed 53.5 kilos.

Those comments made Anna begin to feel anxious. “In 2018 I remember that after the World Cup I didn’t take a vacation, because that way I followed a strict regimen and didn’t run the risk of gaining weight.” She gets injured right at the end of that year. “I didn’t disconnect, I didn’t stop and I injured my knee. She swelled my leg from the thigh to the calf. In the hospital they detected a thrombus and we caught it just in time. Of course, the trainers also blamed that injury on her being fat. You don’t know the weight I took off when I went home and the doctors told me: ‘Your body no longer has anything to pull on and you’re pulling on cartilage and muscle, your knee stopped having its support, that’s why you’ve been injured’ .

The weigh-in routine did not stop even when Anna was injured. They would go up to the room and she had to get on a scale. The message was the same as always: “you can’t get fat”. She returned to training after a few months, she regained competition rhythm. But it was never enough. She “had to lose more and more weight. In addition, everything was screaming from morning to night. They told me: ‘look in the mirror, see what a shame’.

Such was the level of pressure that, Anna says, if she went to the bathroom, she weighed herself with the locker room scale to see how much she had lost with half a workout. “More, more, I have to do more, I told myself.” She took natural laxatives, up to six pills a day. “If in the afternoon she weighed me and I hadn’t lost anything, I wouldn’t have dinner, or do Zumba or go out to eat.”

This is how it lasted until 2020, holding on, as many victims of abuse have done. “I lasted until 2020 because rhythm music had always been my dream. I was devastated, I knew it, but I didn’t want to throw in the towel because I didn’t want to hurt the team before the Games. When they announced that they were postponing Tokyo 2020 I said to myself: ‘thank God I can go home’.

Went back. And she now has a channel on Instagram in which she, with a nutritionist, educates everyone who wants to listen to her about food and behaviors that should not be tolerated. Since her companions and she made public the abuses they suffered, in Change The Game, a non-profit organization that journalist Daniela Simonetti founded in 2018 to protect athletes from physical, sexual and psychological violence, do not stop receiving calls. “Hundreds and hundreds of gymnasts of all ages who tell us about cases like Anna’s,” she tells Simonetti. The Italian Gymnastics Federation released a statement saying it does not tolerate any form of abuse and that it had warned the Federal Attorney and to Safeguarding Officer for the pertinent clarifications.

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The abuses in Italian rhythmic gymnastics: “Ham, fat ass. Gives you no shame?”