Damning report finds that medals took priority over welfare
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A review has found that British Gymnastics enabled a culture where young gymnasts were starved, body shamed and abused.
Anne Whyte QC has published an independent report based on more than 400 submissions from those in the sport, including a story of a seven-year-old girl who was “sat on” by her adult coach in order to extend a stretch.
The 306-page report has “unsparingly and unflinchingly” exposed the “depth of the allegations” of physical and emotional mistreatment that have plagued the sport, The Times said.
What are the allegations?
Among the testimonies in the review are those of gymnasts reduced to tears and injured by coaches sitting on them as they stretched, with one saying they did not know how their legs didn’t “snap” during the experience.
One gymnast reported being sworn at regularly from the age of nine, Sky News said. Another told investigators “the coach would shout and scream in our faces so close that I could smell [their] breath and feel [their] spit landing on my face”.
A former elite gymnast described being made to stand on a beam for two hours because she was frightened to attempt a particular skill. Another expressed a dominant culture of intimidation around “weight management” that led to children hiding food behind ceiling tiles.
The review found that girls were subjected to some of the worst treatment, often concerning regular weigh-ins, The Guardian reported.
“Our time of the months were never accounted for,” said one female gymnast’s testimonial. “Being on my period meant I could add one or two kilograms to the weight on the scale. Immediately I would be shunned for this.”
How was this allowed to continue?
Britain’s “ruthless Olympic medal drive” since 2008 may have contributed to welfare failings, The Telegraph said. Until 2008 no British gymnast had ever won an Olympic medal, but it has since delivered 16 medals over the past four Games. Whyte concluded that “medals mattered more than… athlete welfare”.
Sport England admitted to Whyte that “its own historic performance-related targets had probably driven the wrong sort of behaviour in sport” although it insisted it had “no way of knowing whether it had caused abusive behaviour”.
UK Sport, the funding body for British Olympic sports, admitted to Whyte that the welfare of athletes was not “front seat” until 2017, and British Gymnastics kept no records of complaints from 2008 and 2016. Sarah Powell, who took the job of chief executive of British Gymnastics in 2021, has offered a full apology.
Reacting to the report, former gymnast Nicole Pavier told BBC Sport: “this isn’t tough coaching and slight mistreatment, this is child abuse of athletes at a very young age”.
Writing on Twitter, Olympian Becky Downie said that she “can confidently say some very big changes have already been implemented” and is “very hopeful that any future elite gymnast” will “not ever experience some of what the previous generations have”.
What happens next?
Whyte’s report argues that more changes are needed. Sky News noted that the review recommends that the sport improves welfare provision for high performance gymnasts and their parents through access to an “independent disclosure service and dedicated Welfare Officer”.
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It added that a complaints system must be made fit for purpose and calls for the sport to appoint a Director of Education to oversee the training of coaches.
Meanwhile, British Gymnastics is also facing a separate legal action from dozens of gymnasts, who allege widespread physical and emotional abuse, including a “culture of bodyshaming”.