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"Culture of Fear" in Gymnastics

View profile for Malcolm Underhill
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"Culture of Fear" in Gymnastics


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."

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.

I have heard a similar account, and of bullying, and thus suspect this behaviour is widespread in the sport of gymnastics.

Independent review

British Gymnastics has 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."

The decision by British Gymnastics to withdraw is 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.

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”. Although she has said that, “we must make sure those who behave like that are not welcome”.

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. 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.

Contact our abuse claims experts today

At IBB, our personal injury team has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent you if you wish to seek compensation for sexual abuse. To talk about how we might be able to help, please phone us on 0333 123 9099, email us at or fill in our contact form.  Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence.

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