Gymnastics abuse scandal: a special report
Culture of fear and questions over claims of abuse leave many families wondering if they should give up the sport, writes Molly McElwee
Gymnastics is a sport young girls dream of competing in – sparkly leotards, smiles and medals. A community sport with more than one million children taking part each month, and a million more on waiting lists. But over the past few months parents have watched in dismay as a national scandal has unfolded.
TV investigations and national newspaper reports reveal allegations of child abuse that have rocked the sport, from grass roots all the way to the elite.
The stories of alleged abuse are a lot for parents to take in. A young girl tied to a high bar, children locked in cupboards, fat-shaming of prepubescent girls, forcing young kids to perform difficult skills while in tears, frightened.
Whistleblowers, from British Olympians Becky and Ellie Downie to Amy Tinkler, Lisa Mason and Catherine Lyons, have described a culture of fear. The picture being painted is a pandemic of eating disorders, debilitating mental health issues, and a system that leaves gymnasts feeling they could be punished for speaking out.
At the elite end there have been calls for the resignation of Jane Allen, chief executive of British Gymnastics, while UK Sport and Sport England have launched an independent review into the sport’s domestic governing body. Meanwhile, a group of 20 gymnasts – some former Olympians – are launching a civil lawsuit against British Gymnastics, such is their lack of faith in a meaningful outcome emerging from any investigation.
After this week’s announcement of renewed lockdown restrictions, the next step for gymnastics clubs will be even trickier. Children are itching to get back. Parents, though, are uncertain. If the best in the sport – the young girls’ idols – are struggling to be heard, what hope do grass-roots gymnasts have of being protected?
One “gym mum”, who wishes to remain anonymous, had never worried about her daughter’s safety since she took up the sport three years ago – not beyond the stomachlurching sight of her nine-year-old routinely somersaulting through the air. But as news emerged of her daughter’s club in the headlines for allegations of malpractice, she grew concerned. At the first session back, she sat in her car for the duration of the three-hour lesson, watching the gym doors. “Just in case,” she says.
Extraordinarily, her daughter’s club failed to put parents’ minds at rest, sending out a sanitised statement in which they barely acknowledged the allegations. “They haven’t tried to reassure us,” she added. None of the parents at the club have discussed the topic either. Some children have simply not returned to the gym – their parents silently removed from the squad’s WhatsApp group.
“For the first two sessions we stayed at the gym in case my daughter felt that she wanted to go home. We made it very clear that if she needs us then she walks out and we’ll deal with it. But it’s terrifying as a parent to know that this has happened.”
Several parents told Telegraph Sport that gyms have a closed-door policy. Another mother said that sessions at her gym have never been open to parents other than end-of-term presentations – and that remains unchanged despite the circumstances. A father said that their club are set to reopen this week, but are only offering closed sessions – in a departure from previous policy – due to Covid-19. He will not be sending his children back unless the club agree to change their stance.
British Gymnastics’ policy says sessions must be open to parents, and where there is no space for a viewing area suggests CCTV as an alternative. But that does not solve the problem of verbal bullying that so many gymnasts have alleged is commonplace.
Since July, concerned parents have been calling a dedicated helpline for gymnastics, set up by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and British Athlete Commission, and which received more than 120 welfare calls in the first month.
“I can understand parents may now have some real questions about some of the settings that children are going back to,” Louise Exton, the head of the NSPCC helpline service, said.
“Our advice is to talk to us about how to reassure their children, but also to really keep an open dialogue with their children, and develop that
sense that, if they’re feeling afraid or worried, then they need to talk to a parent or trusted adult.”
But the culture of fear has affected parents, too – with some saying they are loath to rock the boat
knowing there could be repercussions for their children.
“I had a joke, that even if the coffee in the cafe was cold you wouldn’t say anything because there was a fear of speaking up about anything,” a father of four young gymnasts at a recreational club said.
“To get into a club like this, the waiting list is years so the club know they can replace people.”
Former British gymnast Hannah Whelan, who competed at London 2012, is now assistant head coach at Warrington Gymnastics Club and sympathises with parents.
“This has caused parents to ask more questions, come in and watch and be more involved,” Whelan says. “But if they’re then concerned, made a complaint to BG and nothing’s been done, are they going to continue to send their children there? It’s a difficult situation for parents.”
The mother who sits outside the gym hall said she had family members ringing her up, asking why she was playing Russian roulette with her nine-year-old’s well-being.
She tried convincing her daughter to find a new sport. “We did ask her whether she wanted to take her passion and do something else. But she said 100 per cent no. The drive comes from her. And as a parent you cannot stop her doing something she loves – it’s not fair, we just want her to be happy.”
Although she says her daughter has never been subjected to abusive coaching, they
had noticed a change in culture since she left recreational gymnastics and stepped up to a competitive squad. She wanted to ensure her daughter could differentiate between tough coaching and abuse – no easy task considering Team GB athletes a decade older than her have described their abuse as “normalised”. “We told her we would always believe her first, that was the priority. That whatever she came home to tell us, she would be taken seriously.”
Although it is too soon to know the full effect of this national sporting scandal on clubs’ waiting lists, gymnastics’ reputation has suffered hugely in the past three months.
“This could have a negative impact on the
sport for a while,” Whelan said. “It needed to happen. If people pull their kids out of gymnastics because of it then British Gymnastics needs to enable everybody to trust them again [by] doing right by the athletes. The more transparent they are and the quicker they move, the more people will start to trust again.”
But as some clubs follow British Gymnastics’ lead in failing to adequately open the conversation with parents about the crisis, the worry is whether that trust can ever be regained. Some parents will inevitably remove their children from the sport, others will sit in car parks – praying their child is safe inside.