Swimming scandal British coach created a ‘climate of fear’
Fresh revelations in row over competitor welfare ‘Derogatory terms’ used for disabled athletes
The athlete welfare scandal that has engulfed British sport intensified last night after a British Swimming coach was found to have created “a climate of fear” among disabled athletes and used “derogatory terms” to describe them.
The governing body also announced disciplinary action had been taken against a second “member of staff” following an inquiry triggered by multiple complaints – including by medallists – lodged in the wake of last year’s Paralympics.
Neither individual was named in a statement announcing the outcome of a months-long independent investigation which interviewed 13 athletes and 10 members of staff and the findings of which forced Maurice Watkins, the chairman of British Swimming and a former Manchester United director, to apologise to the victims.
Last night’s revelations were the latest hammer blow to the credibility of Britain’s publicly-funded Olympic and Paralympic medalwinning formula, compounding fears that the country’s unprecedented success had come at the expense of athlete welfare.
The scale of the problem was laid bare by The Daily Telegraph this summer when it revealed that at least 11 of the 28 national governing bodies in receipt of £361.5million of public money in the build-up to the Rio and Pyeongchang Games had received complaints from athletes or been forced to review their policies – or both – since being awarded their share of that cash.
British Swimming did not disclose the precise nature of the offences that the independent investigation it commissioned found had been committed. However, a report by the BBC in March, in which allegations against a coach were first aired publicly, quoted a parent of one of the complainants claiming disabled swimmers had been “belittled and criticised”.
“We were told elite sport was not about the welfare of athletes but the pursuit of medals. There was a culture of fear,” the parent added.
Complaints were lodged with the British Athletes Commission a year ago, within weeks of a Paralympics at which swimming was Britain’s most successful sport, yielding 47 medals – including 16 gold – and eight world records, helping the country finish second in the medal table. Ahead of the launch of the independent investigation in February conducted by two former police officers and a lead investigator experienced in safeguarding in sport, the coach at the centre of the case left his job. Other sports to have faced accusations including bully- ing, discrimination and even sexual assault and child grooming are cycling, athletics, rowing, canoeing, taekwondo, archery and bobsleigh.
Sailing, judo and short-track speedskating are also understood to have been forced to confront welfare-related concerns.
The summary of the respective findings of the British Swimming commissioned investigation read: “As regards the one member of staff who has left, it was found that he had created a climate of fear for some athletes in the British paraswimming programme and there had also been breaches of the staff code by communicating with athletes in an abusive manner, as well as using derogatory terms to describe athletes. As for the second member of staff, it was found that athletes were not managed to the appropriate level, there was failure to ensure management control and lack of empathy was shown towards athletes. Communication with both athletes and their parents/guardians was also found to need improvement. The member of staff acknowledged mistakes had been made.”
Watkins said: “I want to apologise to the British para-swimming athletes and their families who have faced unacceptable behaviours and comments. I have written to those athletes and their families who I understand have been affected by this.
“In the pursuit of excellence, we recognise there have been failings in the culture and communication within British para-swimming. We are correcting that, recognising the need to ensure strong athlete welfare in our sport.”
Tim Hollingsworth, the chief executive of the British Paralympic Association, added: “The health
‘In the pursuit of excellence there have been failings in culture and communication’
and wellbeing of athletes and, indeed, those involved in sport at any level is always of paramount importance. There is no place in Paralympic sport for the kind of cultural failings detailed in this independent report for British Swimming and we commend the governing body for their response to it and the action plan they have initiated.
“Paralympicsgb athletes are some of the most inspiring role models in public life and there are no circumstances in which this kind of conduct is acceptable. We
would encourage athletes to challenge this behaviour wherever and whenever it arises and – as is happening across the system – all organisations and governing bodies to look at their culture and their processes to make sure they are as good as they can be and should be.”
Elite funding body UK Sport said: “We can confirm that we are in receipt of the report. We will now carefully consider it before confirming what, if any, actions we may need to take in response to the findings.”