British Gymnastics enabled a toxic culture that prioritised profit over safeguarding and encouraged an era in which young gymnasts were subjected to shocking levels of physical and mental abuse, a report as revealed.
The extent of the scandal that has tarnished the domestic sport’s golden era has been laid bare in a damning 306-page review by Anne Whyte QC, published on Thursday, which was jointly commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England in 2020.
The review received multiple submissions about gymnasts experiencing a negative culture in their home clubs, at British Gymnastics's national sport centre at Lilleshall, near Telford, and during training and competitive events abroad.
“I have concluded that gymnasts’ well-being and welfare has not been at the centre of [British Gymnastics’] culture for much of the period of the Review and has not, until very recently, featured as prominently as it ought to have done within the World Class Programme,” wrote Whyte.
Whyte drew her conclusions from over 400 submissions following her call for evidence, over half of which reported some form of emotional abuse, nine per cent involved sexual abuse, and over two thirds of which were primarily critical in tone.
The review revealed horrific personal testimonies, including one of a seven-year-old being sat on by a coach and another who said they feared their legs would “snap” during a process in which they were being pushed down to perform the splits.
Gymnasts reported instances of being made to wear a dunce’s cap and being called a “cry-baby” in front of their peers. One parent described how a complaint about their child being called a “faggot” on a daily basis was “shrugged off as a joke” by the club’s welfare officer.
Whyte went on to describe a catalogue of failures by the governing body, including its inability to efficiently deal with complaints, its disregard for athletes’ opinions and its reluctance to intervene over well-known weight-management issues, which she described as the “tyranny of the scales”.
She accused former chief executive Jane Allen of a “lack of leadership” and an “organisational failure… to appreciate the central importance of athlete welfare”.
The review also criticised UK Sport for presiding over a culture in which it’s own ‘Mission Process’ was “window dressing for those sports, like gymnastics, where medals were realistically anticipated and that the medals mattered more… than athlete welfare”.
British Gymnastics and UK Sport both issued apologies, with Allen’s successor Sarah Powell saying: “I am sorry – to them for what they have experienced, to their parents and all those around them.”
The glow around an unprecedented seven-medal haul at the Rio Olympics in 2016 quickly dimmed amid mounting allegations, which led to the respective departures of Allen in 2020 followed by the women’s head coach Amanda Reddin, who had been considered a key architect in the success.
Earlier this week, a gymnast in London became the first to win damages after being subjected to harassment and inappropriate training techniques by coach Andrew Griffiths at Heathrow Gymnastics Club. Dozens of other gymnasts have lodged similar legal claims against the governing body, with many of the cases still outstanding.
Whyte’s interim report last year had indicated the scale of the scandal, but the individual stories and the governing body’s singular failure to act upon the majority of them still made for chilling reading.
“One former elite gymnast described being made to stand on the beam for two hours because she was frightened to attempt a particular skill,” wrote Whyte.
In another case, “one international gymnast explained that their personal coach sat on a gymnast’s lower back, forcing their hips into the floor and then lifting up their knee causing severe pain, or used body weight to push the gymnast down into splits”.
Whyte accused the governing body of facilitating a “quite unnecessary” obsession with weight and body shape, which caused a number of respondents to suffer from eating disorders and mental health issues.
“Throughout the period Review, BG (British Gymnastics) was aware that repeated weighing of gymnasts was not a reliable indication of body composition and constituted poor practice,” wrote Whyte.
“It was also aware that careless and disrespectful comments about weight could cause harm and offence. It knew that gymnasts, especially female gymnasts, were at risk of developing eating disorders through a combination of excessive weighing and dietary restriction.
“I have therefore concluded that despite knowing of the risks associated with excessive weight control, BG failed to ensure that clubs and coaches, including national coaches, were acting responsibly in this regard.”
Whyte concluded with a series of recommendations across what she identified as four key areas: safeguarding and welfare, complaints handling, standards and education, and governance and oversight.
They include ensuring its complaints system is “fit for purpose” and appointing board members with specific expertise in safeguarding and a director of education with overall responsibility for the education of coaches and welfare officers.
In addition, Whyte urged a shake-up at government level with the appointment of an independent ombudsman to oversee welfare and compliance issues across the range of domestic sport.
Whyte wrote: “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, a sector where coaches do not have a central regulator and where most complaints lack independent resolution.
“An Ombudsman is an obvious step in the right direction.”