Gymnastics hit by new abuse claims
Former champions speak out in wake of documentary Mason says others want to talk but fear consequences
British Gymnastics was last night reeling from a new child abuse scandal after two women publicly accused its coaches of having bullied, beaten and starved them.
Catherine Lyons, a former junior and British champion, and Lisa Mason, an Olympian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, came forward in the wake of Athlete A,a Netflix documentary about the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal.
The duo were said to be among dozens of current or former elite British gymnasts accusing their coaches of having abused them, including some too terrified to speak out for fear of being axed ahead of next summer’s Olympics.
Similar accusations were made three years ago during Britain’s athlete welfare scandal, but yesterday was the first time alleged victims went public with their stories.
Lyons, 19, told ITV News she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and needed counselling for a year and a half following abuse that included being “dragged” into a store cupboard aged seven or eight and “whacked” with a stick a few years later.
“As young gymnasts, we’d get shouted at and screamed at and we’d get to the point of crying and, in my case, I’d start hyperventilating,” she said.
“And the way that was dealt with was very wrong. Either music in the gym would be turned up for the coaches to not here my cries and/or I’d be dragged into a store cupboard which, for a small, seven, eightyear-old girl was relatively big, but had nothing in it. I was the only one in there and I was left in there with the door shut to cry myself to exhaustion, basically.
“We’d have to go out and say sorry to the coach for our behaviour and for our bad attitude when, realistically, we were never the ones in the wrong.”
Lyons also recalled her coach hitting her with a stick so hard it “left a long line up my leg”. She added: “Any time she touched me and there was a bruise or a handprint, it was always, ‘Oh, you bruise really easily’.” She also claimed she was starved for a week after being told she was overweight and not to eat anything, and was unable to keep food down afterwards.
Mason said she, too, was subjected to horrifying abuse before the age of 10. “My coach put me on the bars until my hands ripped and bled; my hands would then be pulled down and surgical spirit would be poured all over them,” she said. “I would also have AstroTurf put under the bars, so I would burn my feet if I didn’t keep them up. But everyone else is going through it, so you think it’s normal.”
She said she was also forced to parade in her underwear and told by her coach that she needed to lose weight, as well as being locked in rooms and told she could not eat.
Mason said she was even given pain-killing injections so she could carry on training. “I was made to compete with a grade-three strain on my ankle and a stress fracture in my shin.”
She claimed some current elite gymnasts were suffering in silence.
“A couple have said to me they want to be more vocal but they’re concerned about their position. ‘The Olympics is next year and we don’t want to rock the boat and upset the people who make those decisions.’ They’re going to be ready when they’re ready to speak out, but there are a lot of stories from current gymnasts that are ready to go, but now is not the right time.”
In a statement, British Gymnastics said: “British Gymnastics condemns
‘Any time there was a bruise or handprint, it was always, Oh, you bruise really easily’
any behaviour which is harmful to the well-being of our gymnasts. Such behaviours are completely contrary to our standards of safe coaching.
“Our Positive Coaching Behaviours programme which is mandatory for all coaches, sets out clearly why such behaviours are harmful and unacceptable. Our Integrity Unit investigates all allegations of emotional abuse and bullying that are reported to us or identified by our national network of club Welfare Officers and takes disciplinary action to prevent recurrence.
“We have worked particularly hard in recent years to ensure that our athlete and coaching culture is transparent, fair and inclusive.
“We have worked with our gymnasts and taken specific actions to ensure that their interests and concerns are always considered and addressed and that they have a choice of routes to raise concerns.
“British Gymnastics is reaching out to any gymnast, either current or past, that has concerns around specific incidents or behaviours, and encourages them to contact our Integrity Unit.
“British Gymnastics is here for every gymnast across the country.”