- £3m Whyte review blasts ‘unacceptable culture’
- Children as young as seven were physically abused
- British Gymnastics and UK Sport ‘put medals above welfare’
- Fat shaming, food hiding, physical abuse: gymnasts’ harrowing testimonie
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-style coaches.
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. “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:
Whyte said: “Coaches went to damaging lengths to control what gymnasts ate and weighed, to the extent of searching luggage and rooms for food.”
Gymnasts being reduced to tears and 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”.
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 behaviour 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 organisation.
Incredibly, Whyte found that British Gymnastics kept no records of complaints from 2008 and 2016 while a “culture of fear” meant 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, hundreds 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 adverse or worrying cultural issues in gymnastics. “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,” she added.
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: “Its own historic performance-related targets had probably driven the wrong sort of behaviour in sport although it had no way of knowing whether it had caused abusive behaviour.”
I really don’t get this “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, hundreds of thousands of young people enjoying the sport day in, day out.” What has happened to abusive coaches? She doesn’t have to reveal names just how many sacked, how many retrained? Or are there coaches who abused girls still coaching?