British Gymnastics enabled a culture where young gymnasts were starved, body shamed and abused in a system that ruthlessly put the pursuit of medals over the protection of children, a devastating report has found.
The independent review by Anne Whyte QC, based on more than 400 submissions from those in the sport, unearthed stories of gymnasts as young as seven being sat on by coaches while stretching and others humiliated in front of their peers and deprived of food and water by coaches.
“I heard extreme accounts of gymnasts hiding food, for example in ceiling tiles or under the bed in their rooms,” writes Whyte at one point. “I received accounts of coaches checking hotel rooms ‘army style’ and travel bags for food.”
Around 75% of British Gymnastics’ members are children under the age of 12 and her report found girls were subjected to some of the worst treatment, which Whyte says was caused by “long-standing cultural problems”, initially by the arrival of Soviet- coach style.
However her report, which took nearly two years to compile and cost £3m, also makes for deeply uncomfortable reading for UK Sport, the funding body for British Olympic sports, which admitted to Whyte that the welfare of athletes was not “front seat” until 2017. Since then there have been many abuse scandals, in sports such as cycling, bobsleigh and canoeing. But Whyte’s report into gymnastics is by far the most shocking yet.
“One wonders how many sporting scandals it will take before the government of the day appreciates it needs to take more action to protect children who participate in sport,” warns Whyte at the start of her 306-page review, which describes a culture that permitted physical and mental abuse. It includes stories of:
Gymnasts being reduced to tears and being injured by coaches sitting on them as they stretched. One said they did not know how their legs didn’t “snap” when being stretched.
Another former elite gymnast described being made to stand on a beam for two hours because she was frightened to attempt a particular skill. Others were strapped to the bars for extended periods of time, “sometimes when in great distress”.
Whyte said that “coaches went to damaging lengths to control what gymnasts ate and weighed, to the extent of searching luggage and rooms for food. “
The “tyranny of the scales” led to gymnasts suffering from eating disorders and associated mental health issues. “In one case, I was told that even when the coach was aware that the gymnast had an eating disorder, they continued to name and shame her in public,” Whyte adds.
In total more than 40% described physically abusive behavior towards gymnasts by coaches. There were 30 submissions that related to sexual abuse. However Whyte noted that this was not systemic and was taken more seriously by the organization.
Incredibly, Whyte found that British Gymnastics kept no records of complaints from 2008 and 2016 while a “culture of fear” meant that many gymnasts were too scared to come forward.
Until 2008 no British gymnast had ever won an Olympic medal, but it has since delivered 16 medals over the past four Games. Yet Whyte made clear this had come at a price as she questioned whether there was a link with the UK’s so-called “cash for medals drive”.
However, she accepted the sport was undergoing changes under its new chief executive, Sarah Powell, who offered a full apology. “I had to speak to gymnasts this morning,” she said. “And it was hard. Because you could see how it affected them. I looked them in the eye and said sorry.
“It is not acceptable. It’s emotional for me, I’m a mum and sport is not supposed to do this. “But gymnastics will be different because of the bravery of the young people who spoke up.”
Powell was unable to say if anyone had been disciplined – or whether the coaches responsible for the worst forms of abuse were still in the British system. But she insisted: “This is not everywhere,” adding: “There are great coaches, millions of thousands of young people enjoying the sport day in, day out.”
Whyte was critical of UK Sport and questioned how its “mission process” had failed to identify any opposing or worrying cultural issues in gymnastics. “The ungenerous interpretation is that the mission[processwaswindowdressingforthosesportslikegymnasticswheremedalswererealisticallyanticipatedandthatthemedalsmatteredmorethanamberratingsandmorethanathletewelfare”sheadded[processwaswindowdressingforthosesportslikegymnasticswheremedalswererealisticallyanticipatedandthatthemedalsmatteredmorethanamberratingsandmorethanathletewelfare”sheadded
UK Sport’s chief executive, Sally Munday, disputed that analysis, saying: “We reject the notion that there has ever existed cash for medals.”
However, Sport England admitted to Whyte that “its own historic performance-related targets had probably driven the wrong sort of behavior in sport although it had no way of knowing whether it had caused abusive behaviour.”
Meanwhile, the former British Gymnastics CEO Jane Allen, who had initially blamed the press for negative reports, was more contrite after the Whyte review was published. “I’m deeply sorry I didn’t do more for everyone – especially the athletes – to feel supported, able to speak up and be heard,” she said. “There’s nothing more vital. This was under my leadership and it should have been different.”
The campaign group Gymnasts For Change said that Whyte’s report had not gone far enough. “It should not have been left to the campaign work of athletes and parents to expose a culture of catastrophic safeguarding failings,” it said. “Ultimately, medals were prioritized over athlete welfare.”
“After two years of waiting, this is too little too late to change a culture of mistreatment. Until these recommendations are fully enacted, we strongly advise parents to consider whether they should place their children in British Gymnastics clubs.”
Michelle North, head of the NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit, was
also critical of the sport, adding: “What has been revealed today is
extremely disturbing and completely unacceptable.”
Whyte makes 17 recommendations for the sport – and identifies four key areas to “shift the focus of the sport to gymnast welfare and wellbeing”. They are: care of children and welfare; complaints handling; standards and education; governance and oversight.