‘We let down GB’s young gymnasts’
Governing body chief Allen says ‘mistakes have been made’ Grey-Thompson’s call for sports ombudsman backed
The chief executive of British Gymnastics today admits the governing body has “fallen short” in protecting its members and backs calls for the creation of an ombudsman in the wake of the abuse scandal which has engulfed the sport. Writing exclusively for The Daily Telegraph, Jane Allen declared it was “in no one’s interests” for sport to “police itself ” after acknowledging British Gymnastics had lost the trust of some of those toward whom it had a duty of care.
It was Allen’s first major intervention in a crisis which has sparked calls for her resignation following an avalanche of allegations that gymnasts had been bullied, beaten and starved. The creation of a sports ombudsman was the leading recommendation of a government-commissioned report written by Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni GreyThompson three years ago.
Allen wrote: “This is not just an issue for gymnastics. Baroness Grey-Thompson was right when she said, in 2017, that sport should not police itself. It is in no one’s interests and sport needs help. We have tried to do our best to protect our members and, while we have succeeded in many cases, in others we have fallen short.
“Athletes and coaches will often feel aggrieved if the process does not find in their interests and worry the system is against them. We must find new ways to explain why decisions have been made.
“We back Baroness Grey-Thompson’s call for the creation of a sports ombudsman.”
Almost none of Grey-Thompson’s recommendations – including the creation of a sports ombudsman
– were implemented, with more than one source saying that UK Sport lobbied against them because it felt it could solve the athletewelfare crisis itself.
But amid calls for greater independence in the system in the wake of the gymnastics scandal, UK Sport chair Dame Katherine Grainger told The Telegraph its board was poised to discuss triggering an “industry-wide” look at how the sector handled integrity-related matters.
If bad things happen in any sport, a light must be shone upon them. Those that speak out about mistreatment in gymnastics must be heard. And change must follow.
When stories of mistreatment in gymnastics first appeared in the media five weeks ago, I was appalled and ashamed. Over the past 10 years we have worked hard and invested significant resources to strengthen our safeguarding and complaints team, which today stands as an integrity unit of 12 people with responsibility to impartially investigate allegations of abuse, bullying, unfair treatment and failures to comply with our rules.
While our safeguarding systems, processes and staff performance have been audited, accredited and championed by leading experts in the field, we clearly must do more.
Complaints that have been heard and judged by independent experts are being questioned by gymnasts who believe they have not been “backed” by the system. Some complaints made through the media in recent weeks have never been seen by our integrity unit.
In the past five years, there has been an average of 300 reports per annum made to the integrity unit, ranging from allegations of poor practice and rule-breaking to more serious claims of misconduct and abuse. Recent events demonstrate that barriers to complaints exist, and change is needed to restore confidence in the fairness of the process. We must work harder to explain the importance of a system that protects integrity for all parties involved. At present, that is not the case, with emerging concerns of bias against gymnasts.
Some of the recent claims made through the media are not appropriate for a national governing body to rebut in public. We cannot be pulled into a public debate with individual gymnasts over the details of their cases; they are our members and we have a duty of care to them and others involved in the process. Even when we fundamentally disagree with some of the things said, and have recorded evidence to back it up, it would be wrong to engage in a trial through the media when, in some incidences, only a partial view could be aired in hugely complex and legally privileged cases.
This is not just an issue for gymnastics. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson was right when she said, in her report in 2017, that sport should not police itself. It is in no one’s interests and sport needs help. We have tried to do our best to protect our members and, while we have succeeded in many cases, in others we have fallen short. Athletes and coaches will often feel aggrieved if the process does not find in their interests and worry that the system is against them. We must find new ways to explain why decisions have been made. At present, the mistrust from those judged against leads to a vicious cycle that threatens the entire process.
We back Baroness GreyThompson’s call for the creation of a sports ombudsman to hold governing bodies to account and to provide a higher level of review for controversial cases. Such a move would protect the athletes, coaches and individual sports. All need somewhere unequivocally independent to go when cases are complex or controversial.
The emergence of an ombudsman may take a while to happen. In the meantime, we fully support the independent review of gymnastics being overseen by UK Sport and Sport England. We are committed to ensuring it receives all the records it requires from British Gymnastics without prejudice. Indeed, we are passionate that the issues it considers should not be judged on partial information but should be heard in an independent and impartial manner that is fair to all.
Gymnastics is a hugely important activity for more than 400,000 participants across the UK. It cannot function without the commitment of coaches, gymnasts, clubs and volunteers who give up their time to make our sport an important part of their local communities. Change is needed to protect every one of them in the future. The independent review will ensure lessons are learnt, and change is made. We have no doubt our sport will be better for it.
Anyone who feels they have been mistreated in our sport can play their role in helping to change the sport for the better by reporting their concerns to our integrity unit at integrity@ british-gymnastics.org or by calling the BAC/NSPCC Helpline on 0800 056 0566.
Crying foul: Claims of abuse have dogged gymnastics in recent weeks, with Jane Allen backing Baroness Tanni GreyThompson’s call for an independent sports ombudsman