December 3, 2008

So Now Belgium Has a Coaching Scandal Too...

As some of you undoubtedly know, France had its own version of the Karolyi and Brazilian coaching scandals last year. The accusations were less bad, but the case still ended with the head coach of the national team resigning.

What happened was that 47-year-old Yves Kieffer, the man who coached Emilie Lepennec to the 2004 Olympic gold on bars and Isabelle Severino to the 2005 European title on floor, was accused of mental cruelty by a former gymnast, Cloe Briand, who told a French radio station that she lived in constant fear of Kieffer. "It was all too militaristic and cold," said Briand. "I was so afraid of his torrents of abuse that I'd vomit before workouts."

Yves Kieffer (photo: Action Press)

At the time, Isabelle Severino defended Kieffer, saying he was a hothead and a very demanding taskmaster but a good coach. For its part, the French Gymnastics Federation (FFG) conducted an extensive investigation, interviewing 90 gymnasts who had worked with Kieffer. Kieffer was accused of verbal excess, irregular behavior, and a dominant and arrogant attitude, and received an official warning from his employer, the French Ministry of Sport. A few months after the first accusations, he resigned as the French team's head coach, devoting himself to research instead. According to certain sources, he was fired and forbidden to coach children again.

Exit Kieffer, or so it seemed.

Over the last few weeks Kieffer has been in the news again, not in France but in neighboring Belgium. Belgium, you see, recently sacked its own women's head coach (Dutchman Gerrit Beltman, who used to coach 2001 World and 2002 European silver medalist on bars Renske Endel), not because of allegations of cruelty, but rather because of the opposite. Reportedly Beltman wanted his gymnasts to have more time off from training and school than the Flemish Federation, Gymfed, was prepared to give them. The dispute ended acrimoniously, and despite repeated protests from his co-workers and gymnasts Beltman was fired, leaving Belgium without a head coach.

Enter Kieffer.

Aagje Vanwalleghem (photo: Jasmin Schneebeli-Wochner)

A few weeks ago, officials of the Flemish Gymnastics Federation, seemingly oblivious of the the scandal surrounding Kieffer in France, contacted the flamboyant Frenchman to offer him the position of head coach of the Flemish team, which is led by Aagje Vanwalleghem (second on vault at the recent DTB Cup and second on vault and bars in Ostrava) and Gaelle Mys, who has one of the coolest floor exercises around. (If you haven't seen Mys on floor, do yourself a favor and check out her 2008 routine here. Best choreography of the year, we think.)

A Belgian gymnastics journalist who clearly sided with Beltman then took it on himself to inform the nation and Gymfed of the accusations against Kieffer. Gymfed President Rik Dombrecht was surprised when confronted with the particulars of his candidate's reputation. "I heard a complaint was filed with the Nantes court, but it was a complaint against the FFG, not against Mr. Kieffer. And last week the Nantes court actually acquitted the FFG of the charges. I wasn't aware there was an FFG report on Mr. Kieffer, nor that he was given an official warning. He never told me that."

As it happened, the Belgian journalist discovered, the FFG hadn't been acquitted. The Briand case hadn't been found inadmissible by the Nantes court, as Kieffer had stated, but transferred to another court, Saint-Nazaire. And the charges (unacceptable behavior and violence against minors) were leveled at Kieffer rather than at the FFG.

Most damning of all, it transpired that there was another court case against Kieffer. In Bordeaux another gymnast had sued Kieffer for unseemly behavior, and again, Gymfed wasn't aware of it.

Gaelle Mys, who represented Belgium at the Olympics (photo: AFP/Getty Images)

On December 1 Gymfed confirmed in a press release that it still wanted to work with Kieffer, saying that as far as the federation was concerned, the allegations about the court cases against Kieffer had been sufficiently refuted. However, the Frenchman had decided not to take the job, citing "a hostile environment" (by then national champion Aagje Vanwalleghem and a few coaches had indicated that they didn't want to work with him) and "the media's negative attitude" toward him.

The Gymfed press release also stated that an FFG legal expert had told Gymfed that the Nantes court had found in favor of Kieffer. Said the FFG: "It's a form of rehabilitation for a coach who received a simple warning that did not come with an injunction forbidding him to coach kids, as has been wrongfully alleged." Gymfed also stated that the FFG had told them that their internal report on Kieffer, based on interviews with 90 gymnasts, actually painted a positive picture of the coach.

Sounds like the door is open for Kieffer to return to the French team, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, Belgium is still without a head coach, and the situation is getting bad.

Over the last couple of weeks several high-ranking Belgian coaches have gone on strike in an effort to make Gymfed reinstate Gerrit Beltman, which Gymfed says it has no intention of doing. The gymnasts, too, are clamoring for Beltman's return. On November 22, Belgian newspaper Nieuwsblad published a two-page interview (reprinted here) with national champion Aagje Vanwalleghem. The headline read: "Can I please have my coach back?"

In the interview Vanwalleghem praised her former coach to the skies, saying: "He's a brilliant technician who knows exactly how to get you ready for a competition. He can take you from completely out of shape to Olympic peak shape in just three months. He has an excellent long-term plan and knows how to make sure that everybody has the same goals. Some people think he lacks people skills. Of all my teammates, I've been with him the longest. I've been with him since I was eleven, so it's been nearly ten years now. His people skills have improved tremendously over that period. He really is a coach now, encouraging you when things aren't going well and giving you a pat on the shoulder. He has even consulted a sports psychologist. Parents, gymnasts, coaches, judges, and Gymfed's medical staff don't understand why he was fired. I'm very disillusioned."

Aagje Vanwalleghem and Gerrit Beltman (photo: Belga)

Vanwalleghem, who missed the Beijing Olympics because of a knee injury but is back in the gym now and working on two new vaults to become even more competitive on the event, expressed a desire to go on competing until the 2012 Olympics, but said in no uncertain terms that she'd need Beltman to do so.

Meanwhile, Beltman has reportedly signed a nine-month contract with Bosan TON, which is well on its way to becoming Holland's new super club. He's said he'd like to return to Belgium, but so far, Gymfed has said that this is not an option. Perhaps the recent Kieffer affair will make them reconsider their stance.

Undoubtedly to be continued.


  1. Forgive me if I sound really uneducated on this, as I am pretty new to the gymnastics world.

    With all the coaching scandals, it interests me as to why the gymnasts don't complain or bring something up while the offenses are actually going on... I'm not sure what the implications of doing so are, I guess it could make terms even worse between the gymnasts and coaches if they make something public, but it seems like it would get to a point where the gymnast would just walk out on it. That is, unless their goals of becoming a better athlete make it worth enduring, and/or they don't have much other option for training.

    I'd think that the coaches would value the athletes more and treat them with more respect, but if the clubs have that much power over them (being their possibly only resource for training), then I guess the coaches will do what they want. Having a coach like Beltman, which they are actually asking for back, looks to me like a much more positive psychological boost. And with all the injuries, maybe more rest time is better.

    On a side note, I love that floor routine, esp. at 0:40 moving back to the corner. At first I thought I'd change the move at 0:45, but it fits in well. Maybe one of those 'if it aint broke, dont fix it' things.

  2. Isn't Gaelle's floor exercise amazing? We loved it when we first saw it, sending it to each other and others with an excited, "See? It is still possible under the current code to have decent floor choreography!"

    As for the abuse situation, we can only hazard to guess that gymnasts don't complain because they think it will be the end of their career if they do. If you've worked long and hard to reach the top, the last thing you want to do is to alienate the coach who will make you part of a world championship team if only he's favorably impressed with you. But some of the girls break, and that's exactly what happened to Cloe Briand, the first girl to complain about Kieffer. She decided it wasn't worth going through all the abuse every day and left the national training center. Others bite their tongues and stay. It all depends on how badly they wish to reach the top and how much they're prepared to accept for the sake of success. Severino and Lepennec decided their dreams of success outweighed Kieffer's criticism and insults; Briand did not.

    Personally, we'd want to have a nice, caring, and encouraging coach too, but there's no denying that some of the most successful coaches in the history of the sport have been known to have had abusive tendencies. Some of them said they were being harsh on purpose to separate the tough kids from the not so tough ones, others just didn't seem to know any better. The tough love approach seems to work for some gymnasts, although we're sure there are plenty of casualties along the way. It's a sad but unavoidable aspect of a sport where most athletes are young kids who haven't learned to speak up for themselves yet.

    From the newspapers articles we've been reading about the Belgian situation over the last few days, it seems that pretty much everyone in the Flemisch gymnastics world agrees the gymnasts need more rest, by which it seems they mean less school rather than less training. We're kind of baffled by Gymfed's refusal to give in on the matter. They sound like a bunch of stick-in-the-muds who are too proud to admit they've made a mistake, but we probably know too little about the case to be able to pass judgment like that. :)