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Black girl at centre of Irish gymnastics race row ‘badly let down’, says ministry

 Statement comes as it emerges that head of Ireland’s sporting authority told family girl’s treatment was not racist

Ireland’s sports ministry has said that a young gymnast at the centre of a racism row was “badly let down”, as it emerged that the head of the country’s sporting authority told the family last year that the girl’s treatment wasn’t racist.

Una May, the CEO of Sports Ireland, said the judge who ignored the only black gymnast in the competition lineup had got the medals “tangled up”, in comments witnessed by at least two people outside the family.

Video of the event in March 2022 shows a judge handing out medals for participation to a line of young gymnasts, but ignoring the only black girl. A photographer, coach and other officials fail to intervene. A mediation settlement reached with the family involved the judge taking anti-racism training

May’s remarks are likely to deepen concerns about systemic racism in Irish sport. By the time she met the family, at the SportsFest event in Dublin organised by campaign group Sport Against Racism Ireland (Sari), in September 2022, major international figures in gymnastics and sports ethics had already reached out to support the girl.

Gymnastics great Simone Biles, respecting a family request for privacy, sent the girl a private video message. Other supporters included Harry Edwards – the sociology professor who inspired the iconic protests at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics by founding the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

But at home in Ireland, institutions tasked with promoting sports and keeping young athletes safe had not tackled the incident with the same urgency.

“[May] said it wasn’t a racist incident at all, the medals just got tangled,” said Ken McCue, who was co-founder of Sari and has been helping the family.

“I said to her: ‘That’s disgraceful, you want to change your mind on that one,’ and she just walked away.”

Perry Ogden, the CEO of Sports Against Racism Ireland, also witnessed the conversation, and confirmed McCue’s recollection of her comments.

Asked if that still represented May’s position, Sports Ireland did not directly respond. It said the organisation contacted Gymnastics Ireland after receiving a report of the incident, and remained in contact throughout the investigation.

“Sport Ireland’s position throughout was that the incident in question should not have happened and should be investigated by Gymnastics Ireland,” the statement said, adding: “Sport Ireland condemns any form of racism whatsoever.”

The girl’s family contacted the ministry for sport, Sports Ireland, the Olympic Federation and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission after the incident.

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In her initial emails the girl’s mother was clear that she was worried about systemic racism and the safety of all young athletes in the sport, and was not only seeking a response to the distress and pain her daughter had endured.

“We want to know what Gymnastics Ireland are going to do about this. We are concerned for the next black family who join gymnastics,” she wrote to Gymnastics Ireland and Sports Ireland immediately after the incident.

“Is this the reason there are not more black families involved? What is the anti-racism policy for Gymnastics Ireland?”

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.

None of these organisations made any public comment on the girl’s treatment at the time and it would be another year before the family got an apology from Gymnastics Ireland, after the video went viral internationally.

That lack of response was particularly shocking given how powerful the video was, Ogden said. “We were extremely surprised that nobody would engage with us. And so we could only make the assumption that they were hoping it would just go away.”

The Department of Tourism, Culture, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media said it had asked for an investigation as soon as it heard about the incident and condemned the slow response from Gymnastics Ireland.

“It is unfortunate that this process took so long,” the ministry said in a statement. “The child was badly let down, and it is right and proper that Gymnastics Ireland have issued an apology. We understand that they have committed to put measures in place to ensure that a similar incident does not happen again.”

“The department is committed to a zero-tolerance approach to racism in sport”.

McCue said the apology from Gymnastics Ireland did not go far enough, and the executive staff needed to attend anti-racism training sessions to understand the harm such incidents did and protect young athletes.

“Some women have come along to me in the meantime and said that they pulled their kid out of gymnastics because of racism,” he said.

Ogden also said the official response to the video in Ireland, which has largely focused on the behaviour of the individual handing out medals, failed to capture systemic issues. A photographer and coach were among adults also watching the ceremony who didn’t intervene.

“It’s [also] shocking that none of the other people around did something,” he said, calling for a rethink of anti-racism policy in sports in Ireland. “This should be a wake-up call.”

“Every sports body should have a diversity and inclusion policy. And they should have people out there, training coaches, training their members, talking to parents, and have more people from ethnic minority backgrounds engaged in that training.”


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