Farah Ann Abdul Hadi: ‘That’s the only way to change the narrative’

It takes many things to forge an Olympian. For gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, a mixture of heartbreak, relentless determination and her belief in positive change has now led her to represent Malaysia in the greatest show on Earth: the Olympics.
Farah Ann Abdul Hadi. Photo: Kubrina Kass.
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Farah Ann Abdul Hadi: ‘That’s the only way to change the narrative’

Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi found out she had qualified for the Tokyo Olympics from an unlikely source: Wikipedia.

“I just felt this complete rush of relief,” she recounts. “Relief and happiness. Then I texted my family ‘Tokyo here we go’: it was late but my sister, who’s in Australia, called and then she was crying and I was crying. Then I walked to my coach’s room to thank her for everything she’d done for me. The next morning I called my parents and my dad and my mom were crying… it was just an overwhelming experience but such a joy to go through.”

Qualifying for the Olympics is no easy feat, but it’s something that 26 year-old Farah Ann does not take for granted for one second, especially since she’s only the third female Malaysian gymnast in history ever to make the Games. When we chat over Zoom one April afternoon – evening in Malaysia – she tells me how much heartbreak she went through before Tokyo was even on the horizon.

“I had been 0.001 points away from qualifying from the Rio Olympics,” says Farah Ann. “It had just been one of those days where everything went wrong and I fell [in my routine]; I was devastated. I couldn’t accept it and I couldn’t forgive myself. When I came home I had to take time off. I told my coach I couldn’t even go to the gym, because I felt so upset that I had let myself and everyone else down.”

For the majority of us who will never perform in front of a crowd knowing that those few minutes might define your entire career, it’s fascinating to learn how athletes surmount those moments where they think it’s all over, only for them to redefine the limits they thought held them back. For some athletes, help might come in the form of a particular song before heading out there. For others it might just be knowing a loved one is in the crowd.

By the time qualification for the Tokyo Olympics came around in 2019, for Farah Ann this all came down to a singular message.

“I remember on the bus it was raining outside and I just prayed: please, give me the strength to do my best,” she tells me. “I had never been so nervous. It wasn’t butterflies in my stomach, I felt like there were rhinos in my stomach! But I told myself that if I did my best whatever the results were I would know I gave 110 percent. On the day it went good and I was ranked first out of the Malaysian team. But I was done early and I had to wait until the end of the competition. When the competition was over, my teammate went on Wikipedia and congratulated me on making it. It was just a rush of relief and happiness.”

It’s the ability to rise in these moments that define the greatest sportswomen and men across history, no matter what discipline they have made their own. Yet female gymnasts, like all female sportswomen, find derogatory stereotypes hoisted upon them irrespective of how successful they are. Only in recent years have we seen narratives around female gymnasts start to change, helmed by the athletes themselves: that they are not the fragile, gentle and obligingly smiley image of the female gymnast that many still assume or expect. One can argue that it’s easy to see where such a stereotype comes from. They’re often on the shorter side when it comes to height, wear sparkly leotards and have intricately done hair and makeup. None of these elements should elicit misogyny at all, but they are all factors which have been weaponised by certain groups of people throughout history in order to undermine women around the world.

Such stereotypes ignore the hard work and emotional tribulations that Farah and her compatriots go through in order to achieve their dreams. It glosses over moments such as how Farah’s parents held a viewing party to hopefully watch her qualification, only to find there was no stream they could watch so they had to sit and just see the scores come in instead. It doesn’t take into account her sister flying across the world to support Farah in meets, or the camaraderie fostered over decades of competition between the gymnasts.

Farah Ann is, of course, deeply aware of such discrepancies not just in women’s sports but also across society. After all, she has a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts and Social Sciences from Monash University, for which she minored in gender studies.

“When I was young I was like… whatever boys can do I can do as well, but coming into my teenage years, there were always people who never said, ‘Oh, she’s good.’ It was just, ‘Oh, she’s pretty’ and it was never about my athletic capabilities,” she explains. “My weight was always talked about: ‘Oh she looks bigger… oh now she looks smaller’. I always see in the media people talking about The Top Ten Most Beautiful Gymnasts or The Top Ten Prettiest Athletes. I’d always ask: where are these videos for guys? But it happens to men too, when they’re only allowed to show their strong side. It’s really unfair. When I compete I wear makeup, but when I take it off people say: ‘You don’t look good. You look tired’. When people want to ask me those kinds of questions [about only my weight or appearance] I say: ‘You know what? I refuse to do the interview’, or I ask for the questions to be taken out. That’s the only way to change the narrative.”

I ask her how this affects the way the gymnasts both see themselves and one other. Any profession that places some emphasis on presentation or appearance – whether that be modelling, dancing or gymnastics – is often portrayed as being cutthroat, cruel and full of girls with very little self-esteem. Is this really how it is? Or is this yet another stereotype that serves to merely fuel real life?

“I think some coaches or managers make it cutthroat because they see other gymnasts as rivals that have to be beaten,” she muses. “But I’ve learned that you can change this culture, and you have to be the leading force that is the change. With some girls it’s just that they’re nervous. They might need silence to get into the zone and it’s just about knowing people’s boundaries. Say with the US team, they’re on a really strict schedule, so you might want to talk to them but you can’t because they’re so busy, everyone is. Or sometimes there are language barriers. For us [the Malaysian team] we’re close with a lot of the South East Asian or Asian countries because we always compete in the same arenas. Honestly, I think a lot of what you see is just that people are nervous. They’re on their guard because they don’t want to get distracted and make a mistake! Also in the media, sometimes if they see you enjoying yourself too much they think you’re not taking the competition seriously. So that can be a barrier, because you think you need to act or be a certain way. That can play a part in making the competition quite tense.

When it comes to weight and body positivity there is a shift in thinking, but it still needs to be ingrained in younger [gymnasts]. Especially with parents, who don’t always understand it’s not about restricting your food, it’s about giving your body the food it needs. I always want to tell my juniors that I’ve experienced thinking that if I ate less then I would look slimmer, and if I looked slimmer, then I can perform.

That is very negative: it doesn’t matter what I look like. It matters how strong my muscles are, how good my bones are, how good my training sessions are. I can be ten kilograms less… but then not have the energy to jump. I teach my juniors that you have to eat, to know the healthy benefits of each food you choose to eat. It’s a hard sport and you need to have the fuel to perform these skills. [In gymnastics] right now it’s getting a lot more positive. I’m still educating myself with my nutritionist so that I know I can pass on the correct information to other people.”

Such compassion and mentorship are qualities that are possessed by many in sports, always keen to ensure that the generation that comes after them will be able to access more resources and support than they might not have had when they were breaking through. Figures such as Marcus Rashford, LeBron James and Naomi Osaka are a few that come to mind. But for every big name whose statements send waves around the world, there are dozens of other athletes whose actions go under the radar. Farah Ann herself is aware that not every action she makes needs to be seismic to have an impact. She’s constantly evolving as an athlete and a public figure: happy to take what she knows – and just as importantly what she doesn’t – to be able to always try and do more.

“My mother is Canadian and my father is from Negeri Sembilan [in Malaysia],” she says. “I’m lucky to have both sides. It taught me a lot of awareness in my life, especially in Malaysia where we have such diverse backgrounds. I’ve been able to see how you can just live as a human with both cultures ingrained in yourself, to take the positives and know you don’t have to be one thing or another. You can be a mish-mash of things. It’s important to respect other people’s cultures.”

Yet such respect does not always exist online, something that Farah Ann has battled since she was a teenager, especially when certain crowds expected her to act or dress a specific way as a Muslim gymnast. Movements online in UK sport in recent months have tried to highlight the toxic way comments can affect people and their families, often with tragic consequences. Such movements are merely a microcosm of the abuse that many around the world deal with in their daily lives, and one that is often exacerbated if they are people of colour, LGBTQ+, Disabled, or not cis male.

“I’ve learned to navigate [those comments] my way,” she tells me. “I never thought of myself first as a Muslim gymnast. I always just thought of myself as a gymnast, because in Malaysia many people are Muslim. At least half the team are Muslim, it’s normal. The only time I thought of it was say, with fasting month right now, or when we’d go for competitions and some of my teammates and I would need to find meat to eat that was Halal. It was more in the media when people were starting to focus on what I was wearing as I got older. I choose to practice my religion in my own way and everyone deserves the right to practice their religion their way. I’m not perfect and I will never be perfect. I respect and understand where these people might come from, especially when you’ve been brought up a certain way. But you can have these [thoughts] and not always feel the need to say them.”

Is the awareness of such online vitriol since she was a teenage athlete what led her to start using her platform to speak up on violence against women?

“After university I started seeing on social media more and more cases [concerning violence against women] and what upset me was that even when they speak out people go: ‘Are you sure this happened to you?’ ‘Are you sure you’re not lying?’” she explains. “I’ve spoken to women and girls that have dealt with sexual harassment and abuse, as well as friends and family. Every time we talk about it there is always a girl who says ‘I’ve been through the same thing.’ Why is it always happening? Why is it always that we have to wear certain clothes to make sure you don’t get catcalled? You have to teach people who perpetuate these things that it’s not right. Since I had a platform and a space to speak out, I had to do it. ”

The legacy of any athlete is never set in stone; and we can arguably never truly understand the impact an athlete has had until decades, perhaps even centuries, after they decide to retire from their profession. For Farah Ann, it is clear that she doesn’t mind what impact she has on the following generations, as long as it’s positive. Maybe that will come in the form of more medals – perhaps an Olympic one. Or maybe it will be a young gymnast now believing their potential is limitless because she’s helped them believe.

“If I can be a person that a little girl can look up to and say that’s the reason they want to do the sport and they feel able to do it, then I think I would say I’ve had a good career,” says Farah Ann with a smile. “I tell people: ‘If you want my opinion on something, then you have to respect me and not talk about how my appearance isn’t right or good enough’. Anything that I put my name on, I want to make sure that it’s inclusive. If not, what’s the point of being human, existing in this space where we get to express ourselves, if we’re not actually allowed to?”

Farah Ann can be found on Instagram and Twitter. Catch her in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games this summer.