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"Culture of Fear" in Gymnastics

View profile for Malcolm Underhill
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"Culture of Fear" in Gymnastics
First published 13 July 2020 (updated 15 October 2020)

The recent disclosure by prominent gymnasts may prompt a trickle of similar complaints, although if it follows the experience in other environments, it is far more likely that the trickle will become a flood of complaints from former gymnasts and parents, about the “mentally and emotionally abusive” sport of gymnastics, as described by British Olympians Becky and Ellie Downie. From my own experience of acting on behalf of those abused in sport, it will not be surprising if others, having seen the bravery of prominent figures speak out about their own experiences, now have the confidence to speak out of their own, similar experiences, whether it is “the environment of fear and mental abuse” talked about by the British Olympians or whether it is of a sexual nature, which I have been told about.

The complaints

Becky and Ellie Downie, like many victims of abuse, whether it be emotional, physical, or sexual, talk of their fear of speaking out about their own experiences. Secondly, like many children I have spoken to through my work, they say “we certainly didn’t realise how wrong it was at the time”.

Ellie Downie spoke of being made to feel “ashamed” of her weight, which has affected her emotionally. She also talks of seeing other girls “descend into eating disorders and mental health problems”. Such is the power of sport coaches that Becky, 28, has only felt able to “stand up for herself” in the last few years.

Louis Smith has similarly spoken about a culture of fear in British gymnastics. He said, “when you’re young, sometimes that approach from a coach blurs the lines between a coach who is a hard but good coach (and) a coach being too pushy, abusive, not understanding”.

The Olympic medallist Amy Tinkler, who attended the South Durham Gymnastics Club, has also revealed that when she retired in 2019, it was not due to an injury, as reported at the time, but due to her “experiences”.    She said, "It was an account of my experiences as a club and elite gymnast, and the experiences I shared were the reason for my retirement in January (2020), not a physical injury as was suggested by some at the time."

A teammate of Tinkler, Emily Marsden, records that she was told to “have nothing to do with her”, after Tinkler left the gym. Emily says, "I remember our group being sat down and then telling us that we had to block Amy and had to remove her from everything like Instagram, Facebook, whatever social media we had and have nothing to do with her.

"They didn't really tell us why when we asked. They wouldn't tell us. They said 'you don't need to know, just block her or you'll be in trouble.'

Roxanne Jennison also from the South Durham Gymnastics Club says she was made to feel ashamed of her weight. She said that she was made to feel that she was “fag” and recalls stopping herself.

In August 2020, 2 coaches from South Durham Gymnastics Club were suspended. British Gymnastics said, “Suspension is a neutral act intended to protect both parties in a complaint. We are not in a position to comment further on these suspensions or on any other coaches at the moment”.

Although nervous and, understandably, fearful about speaking out about their own experiences, Sophie Jameson, Olivia Williams, Abbie Caig, Georgina Clements and Amber Leyland have also spoken out about their experiences, having “suppressed the emotions and buried them away”. Caig says, “I feel like speaking out now is going to allow me to get everything I want off my chest and I can finally move on”.

These five ladies make complaints against the same club, the City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club, with their allegations of mistreatment spanning 2008-2019.

Caig has also said, “it was not a happy place, and it should have been a happy place, and a fun place”. Amber Leyland has talked about the effects of the treatment she experienced. “It started before you even got into the gym, as soon as you got up it was “right, I’m scared of going in””.

It is understood that The City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club denies the allegations made. They say that they have not received any complaints from these five women, although have received eight complaints about the gym in the last five years.

Charlie Fellows was told she was “too heavy” to train.  She now struggles with body image as a result of her experiences.

The effects of bullying and abuse do not stop, once the mistreatment ceases. This is illustrated by Georgina Clements and Sophie Jameson who say they still “struggle to make friends” because of their continuing anxiety. Jameson talks about going home at night, “close my door, and I just cry. When I look back, it makes me really sad, because that made me the way I am today-I am so anxious”.

Nile Wilson, Olympic Bronze Medallist at the Rio games in 2016 has publicly said that athletes are “treated like pieces of meat”.  He described witnessing the familiar characteristics of abusers, saying, “I believe there’s a massive element of control”. He explained this by saying, “we are made to feel fear, or scared of speaking out, voicing our concerns, because they have us, our livelihoods, in their hands”.

He said, “I was abused” and talked of a “culture of abuse”.

Nile now has fears about his selection for Tokyo in 2021. He says he has been conditioned to fear that he will not be selected.

Christian Cox, a junior world champion, who won gold in the British men’s four junior acrobatics team in China, in 2016, has said that his intense training and being “pushed to (his) limits” resulted in him self harming. He claims that his coaches knew that he was feeling suicidal. He says, “I wrote on a bit of paper, “I want to run outside the gym and kill myself”. Coaches were like, “You can’t write that”.” Christian says his coaches response was, “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to become world champion”.

It is understood that Christian’s club, Richmond Gymnastics Association, dispute his allegations.

Claire Heafford recounts the terrible experience of “belittling, humiliating, ……..ongoing disappointment”. She also said, “there was withdrawal of attention, deliberately ignoring certain gymnasts, a lot of being sent out of the gym”.

Mimi Cesar the rhythmic gymnast was told that she was “not good enough, your thighs are disgusting”. Even after she won, she was told, “your thighs are horrible”.

In another example, a young gymnast, Paige Southern-Reason, says “every time we cried, they (the coaches) pushed us harder and harder”, even though the coach was told the exercise hurt. The response from the coach was to scream at the child.

Although many gymnasts publicly aired their complaints in the summer of 2020, these were not the first complaints. In 2017 Dan Keatings reported a culture of “bullying and manipulation” throughout his time as a gymnast and spoke of his “relief” following retirement.

Keating’s said that “the fear is very real” and that “I’m one of the athletes that was never able to say anything because I was scared of not being selected for the team which then leads to losing funding”.He went on to say, “you’re trying to become an Olympic medallist and people are putting you down all of the time”. He says he was repeatedly called “fat” during training. “There were times when I was really quite down and I’m pretty certain I was depressed at certain times. There were times I didn’t even want to leave the house”.

Although a number of athletes came forward in 2020, these were not the first complaints. In 2017, Dan Keatings, who won World, European and Commonwealth honours, described his personal experience of “bullying and manipulation” during his time as a gymnast. So bad was his experience that he described it as a “relief” when he retired.

He, too, was concerned about speaking out at the time, saying, “I’m one of the athletes that was never able to say anything because I was scared of not being selected for the team which then leads to losing funding”. He said, “the fear is very real”.

He also said, “you’re trying to become an Olympic medallist and people are putting you down all of the time”, reporting that he was repeatedly called “fat” during training. “There were times where I was really quite down and I’m pretty certain I was depressed at certain times. There were times I didn’t even want to leave the house”.       Such an experience mirrors those who made their complaints three years later.

I too have heard  similar accounts of poor treatment and of bullying, and thus suspect this behaviour is widespread in the sport of gymnastics.

Independent review

British Gymnastics  announced an independent review to investigate allegations of in proper conduct in its sport. However, like the British Athletes Commission, which represents athletes, I was concerned about whether the review would be truly independent, when it would be published and, if so, whether it would be published in full. We know from the enquiry set up by the Football Association that an enquiry can take a long time, but even when published, the report may not satisfy those demanding a comprehensive investigation.

Lisa Mason, a London 2012 Olympian, has also expressed her concern that the review will be a “whitewash” unless such a review is fully independent.  Consequently, it was pleasing to read that British Gymnastics subsequently “made the decision to step aside to allow UK Sport and Sport England to co-commission the Independent Review it first established following concerns raised by British gymnasts about mistreatment.

Jane Allen, CEO of British Gymnastics, said: "It is vital the Review is unequivocally independent with full resources to effectively deal with concerns raised by gymnasts. In the past week (of the 16 July 2020), the complexities have increased, and it is clear to retain the trust of the gymnastics community we have decided to recuse ourselves from any management of the Review. Our priority is to learn the lessons and ensure the welfare of all those within gymnastics. By stepping aside, we hope the Review can now proceed unimpeded."

On the 13 October 2020 Jane Allen announced her retirement as Chief Executive of British gymnastics. She said that she had planned to retire after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics although had decided to make an announcement now, to leave in December to “move the sport forward”, having led the sport for the last decade. She went on to say that, “this is my decision. It’s part of my retirement plan. I’ve had the support of the board, and nobody else has played a hand in this decision”.

However, there was some anger following the announcement by Jane Allen to retire. Jennifer Pinches, the former Olympic gymnast said her “blood is boiling. Jane Allen should have been fired in disgrace or step down out of shame”. Olympic medallist Nile Wilson said it was “a great day for the sport”. Hannah Wilson, a 2012 Olympian, said it was a “good start for her to step down but far more change is needed”.

The decision by British Gymnastics to withdraw from conducting its own review was  sensible and will give greater confidence to gymnasts, that they will be heard, that there will be a proper enquiry and that their complaints will not be dismissed or glossed over.

Whyte Review

On 25 August 2020 UK Sport announced an independent review into allegations about mistreatment within the sport of gymnastics. The independent Review is to be undertaken by Anne Whyte QC, a highly respected and experienced barrister with an extensive record of acting in complex criminal and civil litigation. 

The period under review is from August 2008 until August 2020.

The call for evidence from individuals and organisations was to close on the 25 September 2020, but was extended to 9 October, following an announcement by Anne Whyte QC.

The outcome of the Review is to determine whether

gymnasts’ wellbeing and welfare is (and has been) at the centre of the culture of British Gymnastics;

safeguarding concerns and complaints have been dealt with appropriately in the sport of gymnastics and if not, why not; and,

gymnasts, or their parents, carers or guardians, have felt unable to raise complaints with appropriate authorities and if so, why.

In August 2020 Amanda Reddin, head coach at British Gymnastics, agreed to step aside while an investigation into her alleged misconduct, made by Amy Tinkler, took place. British Gymnastics said, “British Gymnastics has agreed with Amanda Reddin that she will temporarily step aside from her role as head national coach to allow an investigation to proceed into claims about her conduct as a coach. The investigation will be completed by an external independent expert and any outcome actioned immediately. Our processes and investigations will also be scrutinised by the independent review”. The national sporting body also said, “there is no place for abuse in our sport. Those that speak out about mistreatment in gymnastics must be heard. It is vital, however, that such claims are made through the proper processes to ensure a fair and independent system that protects integrity for all parties involved”.

Amanda Reddin rejects the allegations made against her by Amy Tinkler.

In September 2020 Amy Tinkler said that British Gymnastics were “prolonging my suffering”, arguing that they had not explained why her complaint had been dismissed. The gymnast said she emailed British Gymnastics three times “asking for an explanation or summary outcome”, but did not receive a reply. She has made clear that she considers this an unacceptable position, saying, “I was promised a summary outcome. Now you (British Gymnastics) say this isn’t possible due to “employee privacy rights””.  She goes on to ask, “why are you treating me differently? Are you aware your actions are prolonging my suffering?”.

By way of response British Gymnastics have apologised and acknowledge, “she deserves answers and we have offered to meet her either in person or virtually so we can talk her through the answers to her questions”.

UK Sport Chief Executive, Sally Munday has vowed to “root out” people” not doing the right thing” in gymnastics after a series of “disturbing allegations”. She has said that, “we must make sure those who behave like that are not welcome. However, it is my experience that the behaviour of those who have bullied and abused young gymnasts must have been seen by others and therefore it may well cause anger amongst young gymnasts when it suggested that those in authority did not know what was going on. I understand bullying and mistreatment was carried out in plain sight

British Athletes Commission

The British Athletes Commission made its own statement.

“Following the release of Athlete A ( a documentary about the American gymnastics doctor who abused athletes) we have also noted that this has prompted a response from British gymnasts, both past and present, and it is clear that for many their journey through their sport wasn’t as they had hoped it would be. Once again this is troubling to hear as no athlete should have to suffer any form of mistreatment whilst in pursuit of their Olympic dream.”

What next?

It is likely that we will see more complainants come forward, both from the elite section and elsewhere across the sport, expressing similar experiences. The sport must take notice and there must be a fully independent review. That independent Review has begun and in due course an interim report will be prepared. That will result in a review of the Terms of Reference. At the conclusion of the Review Anne Whyte QC will produce a final written report which will be provided to Sport England and UK Sport.

Furthermore, those affected by the abuse, whether emotional, physical or sexual, must have their personal cases answered; a general apology is not sufficient. They must receive justice and in appropriate cases receive compensation to reflect the hurt and harm they have suffered. No amount of money can make up for the distress they have suffered but it can help to heal the wounds and to enable them to gain access to good mental health support.

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