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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly - To re­port any con­cerns about bul­ly­ing or abuse within gym­nas­tics, call 0800 056 0566

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.