The head of British Gymnastics, who is facing calls for her resignation, has told member clubs she is “appalled and ashamed” by the multiple stories of abuse that have emerged in a harrowing and potentially far-reaching week for the sport in the UK.
In a letter seen by the Guardian, Jane Allen said: “Any mistreatment of gymnasts is inexcusable,” and promised to reform the sport. “It is vital that concerns are made public, whether that is through the media or our processes. I pay tribute to those who have spoken out – their bravery will help drive change within gymnastics.”
The organisation held crisis talks on Friday as senior figures braced themselves for further damning accusations in the coming days. Already names such as Beckie and Ellie Downie, and Louis Smith, have made shocking claims of mental and physical abuse.
Allen, who has led the governing body in the UK since 2010, also urged anyone who had suffered from mistreatment to speak to the sport’s integrity unit. However a growing number of gymnasts, including the world championship medallist Charlie Fellows and London 2012 Olympian Lisa Mason, are calling upon her to resign given what is alleged to have happened on her watch. There are also growing concerns that British Gymnastics’ independent review will not be independent enough, if the organisation pays for the QC in charge of the process.
That charge was made by Victoria Aggar, the chair of the British Athlete Commission which represents more than 1,200 athletes from 40 sports. “If true, this does not appear to be independent, and it is not a review that the BAC supports,” she said. “We owe it to our athletes to ensure it becomes thoroughly independent so that their concerns have been heard and have been taken seriously, not brushed under the carpet.”
Do I think all the people who knew what was going on will go? No
Mason, meanwhile, said she feared the review would be a “whitewash” unless it was truly independent. “I am sure some pieces on the chessboard are going to be moved,” she said. “But do I think all the people who knew what was going on will go? No. I also think some in the sport believe they are untouchable, despite so many people coming forward with stories of abuse.
“Gymnasts and coaches still fear that if they dare speak up then they will be silenced. That silence comes in many forms. Sometimes it might be an understanding that if they don’t say anything they will get a promotion.”
Allen, however, insisted British Gymnastics is sincere about reform and also promised she would not seek to influence an independent review into the abuse scandal. Her hope, she said, was it would help the organisation better understand barriers to reporting misconduct.
“The experiences of gymnasts highlighted this week have described fundamental issues within the gymnast-coach relationship,” she said in her letter. “We are determined to get to the bottom of these issues and change gymnastics for the better.”
Some in the sport believe they are untouchable, despite so many people coming forward with stories of abuse
However British Gymnastics has been aware of stories alleging abuse since as far back as 2017, when the Guardian alerted it to the scale of the problem. In recent days, former gymnasts have retweeted those articles online asking why so little has been done.
Of course no one doubts that gymnastics is a brutally hard sport. When the Guardian spoke to the Downie sisters in 2014, for instance, they outlined a typical day’s training with British Gymnastics at Lilleshall. A 9am, there was a stomach or arm conditioning programme before ballet and a stretch, then a series of routines on the vault, bars and beam until 12.30pm. After lunch came another three-hour session until 6pm involving a dance routine featuring leaps, jumps and tumbles, and more work on the bars, beam and floor. Sometimes, for good measure, there was also a fitness test at 7.15am.
At the time of that interview, Ellie Downie was only 14. What she did not say until a statement on Thursday was that she was already being told to repeatedly diet – including being told at a national camp “to lose 6kg in two weeks or ‘there’d be consequences’.” She says that another coach told her that she “hoped the painkillers she was holding for an injury were diet pills”.
Time and again gymnasts have spoken of a culture of fear. The parent of one Olympian told the Guardian of a senior coach at a club telling parents not to speak out. Another parent said that clubs kept complaints about coaches to themselves so there was no accurate record passed up the food chain to British Gymnastics.
But others, such as Smith, have also accused British Gymnastics of not looking hard enough to solve the problem because it might affect the bottom line. It is certainly an open question why an organisation that received £16m from UK Sport since 2017 – and also makes millions from its 250,000 members paying £19 a year – has not established and funded better safeguarding systems across the sport.
What is also perhaps not widely understood enough is that abuse is not reported only by international gymnasts but also by young girls aspiring to regional or national level. As one former gymnast told the Guardian, the “culture wasn’t just expressed at the upper echelons of the sport; it reverberated downwards”.
A coach told her that she 'hoped the painkillers she was holding for an injury were diet pills'
“When I was 13, a bad vault saw me sustain a serious neck injury,” she said. “My coach was so angry with me that she sent me to the foyer to call my parents to pick me up. She didn’t check I was OK. When my parents came I couldn’t hold my head up without using my hands. They took me to A&E. They suspected I had broken my neck and kept me strapped in a body splint. It was just ruptured ligaments in the end but it was a big risk my coach took.”
Speaking more generally about her time at the sport, she added: “It was kind of like leaving an abusive relationship. I loved it but it was a tyranny. I had nightmares for four years after I quit. I sometimes still do. I was training up to 20 hours a week including staying over at my coach’s house so we could be in the gym on Saturday mornings to start training at 6am.
“But the stuff that sticks with me is the shaming, the emotional abuse, the power games, the humiliation. I used to wet myself because I was too scared to ask to go to the toilet.”
When the core of British gymnastics is bad, the rest is going to rot
Meanwhile Mason, whose decision to speak out about being bullied by a former coach on Monday has led to more than a dozen other gymnasts coming forward with similar stories, said she thought British Gymnastics lacked transparency, had protected coaches accused of misconduct, and she did not believe it could change under the current regime.
“You have to lead by example. And when the core of British gymnastics is bad, the rest is going to rot,” she added. “Everyone knows gymnastics is a very demanding sport. It is not for the fainthearted. But that does not mean that you should be hardened to being physically abused. I understand things have changed a lot for the better through the years but there are still problems. And things won’t change unless the people who knew – and didn’t deal with – the problems in the sport are replaced.”