SYDNEY, April 19 -- The Australian government launched Wednesday an inquiry into allegations of abuse of female gymnasts competing for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the elite Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. The allegations, made by parents of several gymnasts, ranged from brutality to verbal and emotional abuse. Minister for Sport Senator John Faulkner said he was taking the allegations seriously and that the independent inquiry would be conducted by Hayden Opie, the president of the Australian and New Zealand Law Association. Some parents of Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) gymnasts -- girls as young as nine and 10 -- have made a number of startling claims in letters to Faulkner and the Opposition spokesman on sport, Senator Ian Campbell. The parents accused the AIS chief woman's gymnastics coach, China- born Ju Ping Tian, of punishing their daughters if they put on weight. Parents also claimed gymnasts were denied help from AIS psychologists and nutritionists, kicked, smacked and forced to run fully clothed in the sauna for unsatisfactory competition results. The Australian Institute of Sport is government-funded and is the headquarters for Australia's elite athletes. 'If there has been any wrong-doing, it is important we deal with it as quickly as possible,' Faulkner said. 'If these allegations are not substantiated, I want to see the good name of the AIS cleared. 'If there has been anything that has meant that young girls particularly have been abused in any way, shape or form, then we need to come to grips with that now and need to get it cleared up now.'
Australian Sports Commission chief executive Jim Ferguson said the AIS had initiated the inquiry and predicted the inquiry would clear coach Tian of any wrong doing. Parents of gymnasts, who have left the AIS program, applauded the goverment decision to hold an inquiry. The parents claimed the girls were forced into abnormal eating habits because of pressure to maintain low body fat ratios, and suffered corporal punishment. They said their children were publicly humiliated before their peers and called names such as 'fat' or 'lazy.' Two mothers, Heather Cleland and Karen Hamilton said their pre-teen daughters had been emotionally scarred by the experience at the AIS.