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The culture of fear inside British Gymnastics has been laid bare in a devastating report which reveals children as young as seven were subjected to extraordinary levels of physical and emotional abuse in a system which prioritised medals over the welfare of its athletes.
The independent Whyte Review, commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England in 2020 at a cost of £3million after widespread abuse allegations emerged in the media, received more than 400 submissions is perhaps the most damning report ever written about a British Olympic sport.
In a harrowing 300-page document, QC Anne Whyte details how some coaches “withheld food, water and access to toilet [facilities] during training sessions”, employing methods which subjected athletes to “physical pain and exhaustion beyond acceptable limits”.
In one case, an athlete was forced to climb a rope as punishment for needing a toilet break, while another told Whyte of being physically slapped for not standing to attention.
A former elite athlete was made to stand on a beam for two hours after being frightened to attempt a particular skill, while the report also included “more than one submission about gymnasts being strapped to the bars for extended periods of time, sometimes in great distress”.
In a particularly grim passage on the practice of ‘overstretching’, the report reads: “One individual reported that her coach had sat on her when she was seven years old and a parent reported two coaches at once pushing their child’s legs down into a split. One international gymnast explained that their personal coach sat on a gymnast’s lower back, forcing their legs to the floor and then lifting up their knee causing severe pain.
“Another gymnast said they didn’t know how their legs didn’t ‘snap’ when being stretched.”
More than half of the submissions related to emotional abuse such as “shouting, swearing, name-calling and use of belittling language” as well as “excessively controlling behaviour”.
Much of that related to weight management, with some athletes “purging or dehydrating themselves” and resorting to “disconcerting strategies to hide food”. One athlete told of rolling up cereal bars inside their socks and underwear, while others hid food above ceiling tiles.
The “scale of emotionally abusive behaviour in clubs was far larger than British Gymnastics had appreciated,” Whyte said.
There were also more than 30 references to sexual abuse, though the report concluded that unlike the psychical and emotional instances, “none of these behaviours appeared to be systemic”.
The report features a list of 17 recommendations, which British Gymnastics have already committed to implementing. They include the introduction of a Director of Education to oversee reform in the training of coaches and safeguarding practices, the establishment of a more thorough recording of complaints to allow “patterns of behaviour” to be identified, and providing all high performance athletes and their parents with access to a dedicated welfare officer from outside their club.
The review, which covered three Olympic cycles between 2008 and 2020, invited evidence from all levels of the sport, but with regards to elite performance, the said that UK Sport - the umbrella organisation which oversees all individual sport governing bodies and distributes their funding - had accepted that until 2017 “athlete welfare had not been ‘front seat’” in British Gymnastics’ culture.
The report said UK Sport’s “Mission Process”, the mechanism for assessing individual sports’ progress ahead of the 2012, 2016 and 2020 Games, “should have identified any adverse worrying cultural issues in a sport in the run up to the last three Olympics”, but concluded: “The mission process did not accurately reflect, with any consistency, the state of the gymnastics world class programme so far as athlete welfare and culture was concerned.
"The ungenerous interpretation, is that the Mission Process was window dressing for those sports, like gymnastics, where medals were realistically anticipated and that the medals mattered more than amber ratings and more than athlete welfare.”
Gymnastics will be different because of the bravery of the young people who spoke up.
However, UK Sport CEO Sally Munday denied the findings were indicative of a wider cultural issue within British Olympic sport, saying: “We reject the notion that there has ever existed cash for medals”.
Munday also apologised for the organisation’s failure to recognise “long-standing cultural problems in gymnastics”.
“There is no question that what we read in this report is upsetting and harrowing,” she added. “And no athlete, no gymnast, or person should have to experience abuse like that. No one should.”
The report was also heavily critical of British Gymnastics’ leadership during the review period. Former CEO Jane Allen was allowed to retire after more than a decade in the post in late 2020, with a new chief, Sarah Powell, appointed last year, while Head National Coach Amanda Reddin left by mutual consent only last month. Allen denied any connection between the abuse scandal and her retirement.
“To read the recollection of these individuals who’ve had such a poor experience of the sport, which has clearly affected them and they’ve suffered because of it, is not acceptable,” Powell, who was previously CEO of Sport Wales, said. “It’s emotional for me. I'm a mum and sport is not supposed to do this.
“This is a genuine apology, from the sport, from myself, from the leadership. We have to set a new path, a new roadmap. Gymnastics will be different because of the bravery of the young people who spoke up.”
In her report, Whyte said she was “confident that the sport of gymnastics is already undergoing change for the good” under its new leadership, but there remain huge questions over the accountability of those who oversaw the most shameful scandal the organisation’s history.
British Gymnastics has been told to issue updates on its progress at six, 12 and 24 month intervals and could been hit by funding cuts should it fail to implement the report’s recommendations.