Para-swim­mers ver­bally abused and bul­lied in ‘cli­mate of fear’

Bri­tish Swim­ming takes rare step of apol­o­gis­ing UK Sport look­ing at re­port which spoke to 13 ath­letes

The Guardian - Sport - - Front Page - Martha Kel­ner

Stade du Hameau (Euro­pean Chal­lenge Cup) The duty of care scan­dal en­gulf­ing Olympic and Par­a­lympic sport has plunged to a new low as Bri­tish Swim­ming ad­mit­ted dis­abled swim­mers, in­clud­ing vul­ner­a­ble teenagers, were sub­jected to a “cli­mate of fear” while train­ing for Rio 2016.

The for­mer head coach of Bri­tish ParaSwim­ming, Rob Green­wood, has left his post and the gov­ern­ing body took the rare step of pub­licly apol­o­gis­ing to ath­letes he was found to have ver­bally abused and used dis­crim­i­na­tory lan­guage about, as well as their fam­i­lies.

The Guardian un­der­stands the sit­u­a­tion was deemed so se­ri­ous that a group of af­fected ath­letes, which in­cludes Par­a­lympic champions, were of­fered com­pli­men­tary psy­chother­apy ses­sions if they re­quired help cop­ing with the trauma of the abuse and sub­se­quent in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

The per­for­mance direc­tor, Chris Furber, has also faced in­ter­nal dis­ci­plinary ac­tion al­though this is in re­gard to man­age­ment fail­ings and a “lack of em­pa­thy” to­wards ath­letes. He is not ac­cused of abuse or dis­crim­i­na­tion.

A source close to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion said that in terms of scale it was the most grave of a grow­ing list of ath­lete-wel­fare scan­dals and again calls into ques­tion the no-com­pro­mise model which dic­tates Olympic and Par­a­lympic sport in the UK. “In terms of se­ri­ous­ness on a scale of 0-10 I would put it at an eight or nine,” said the source. “You have peo­ple with vary­ing dis­abil­i­ties, from learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties through to vis­ual im­pair­ments, and it has af­fected peo­ple who are both un­der 18 and adults who came for­ward in con­fi­dence – in dou­ble fig­ures.

“The sever­ity of it was that free psy­chother­apy ses­sions were ap­proved for any­one who wanted it,” the source added. “The cul­ture of fear was such that you can imag­ine the pres­sure of giv­ing ev­i­dence to an in­quiry and they were also hav­ing to re­call in­ci­dents that they’d rather not. It was very sad in­deed.”

In Oc­to­ber 2016, the Bri­tish Ath­letes Com­mis­sion – an in­de­pen­dent mem­bers’ as­so­ci­a­tion for elite ath­letes in Olympic and Par­a­lympic sport – heard al­le­ga­tions of bul­ly­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion from 13 swim­mers. An ini­tial in­quiry by a le­gal firm found the claims war­ranted fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion. In­for­ma­tion was passed to Bri­tish Para-Swim­ming which in turn en­listed two in­ves­ti­ga­tors, both for­mer po­lice of­fi­cers ex­pe­ri­enced in safe­guard­ing in sport, to carry out an in­de­pen­dent check. They in­ter­viewed 13 ath­letes and 10 mem­bers of staff over eight months.

It is un­der­stood that Green­wood, who took over as head coach of Bri­tish ParaSwim­ming in 2013, left be­fore the in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­gan.

The rev­e­la­tions have caused deep con­cern within UK Sport, the fund­ing agency which al­lo­cated more than £11m in pub­lic and lottery money to the elite Paraswim­ming pro­gramme in the four-year cy­cle lead­ing to the Rio Games. It said in a state­ment: “UK Sport can con­firm that we are now in re­ceipt of the re­port from Bri­tish Swim­ming. We will now care­fully con­sider it be­fore con­firm­ing what if any ac­tions we may need to take in re­sponse to the find­ings.”

The swim­mers were enor­mously suc­cess­ful, win­ning 47 medals, 16 of them gold, con­tribut­ing to Green­wood be­ing handed the High Per­for­mance Coach of the Year award by Sports Coach UK in Novem­ber 2016.

Months later he was gone in a cloud of con­tro­versy and sus­pi­cion. The chair­man of Bri­tish Swim­ming, Mau­rice Watkins, said: “On be­half of Bri­tish Swim­ming I want to apol­o­gise to the Bri­tish ParaSwim­ming ath­letes and their fam­i­lies who have faced un­ac­cept­able be­hav­iours and com­ments. I have writ­ten to those ath­letes and their fam­i­lies 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 ParaSwim­ming. We are cor­rect­ing that, recog­nis­ing the need to en­sure strong ath­lete wel­fare in our sport. Bri­tish Swim­ming has in place a ro­bust ac­tion plan, which fol­lows a lengthy and de­tailed in­quiry de­signed to make sure trans­par­ent pro­ce­dures are fol­lowed and ad­hered to. These pro­ce­dures are be­ing widely com­mu­ni­cated. We want to en­sure a closer work­ing re­la­tion­ship with the Bri­tish Ath­letes Com­mis­sion. Our goal con­tin­ues to be medal-pro­duc­ing per­for­mances, con­sis­tent with medal tar­gets, in a pos­i­tive cul­ture.”

It is un­der­stood Furber, who joined Bri­tish Para-Swim­ming as per­for­mance direc­tor in 2013 from Bri­tish Cy­cling, where he was head coach of the dis­abil­ity pro­gramme, will re­main in his po­si­tion.

Swim­ming is one of a num­ber of Olympic and Par­a­lympic sports forced to ad­mit duty of care fail­ings over the past 18 months. It started with the sprint cy­clist Jess Var­nish who, in April 2016, ac­cused Shane Sut­ton, then per­for­mance direc­tor of Bri­tish Cy­cling, of bul­ly­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Sut­ton con­tin­ues to deny the al­le­ga­tions. An in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion found he presided over a “cul­ture of fear”.

This week the Guardian re­vealed fresh claims of dis­crim­i­na­tion at Bri­tish Bob­sleigh where the head coach Lee John­ston al­legedly said: “Black drivers do not make good bob­sleigh drivers.”

Bri­tish Row­ing con­ducted an in­ves­ti­ga­tion last year after the coach Paul Thomp­son was ac­cused of bul­ly­ing al­though he was later cleared of wrong­do­ing. He has de­nied all al­le­ga­tions. In July a coach in Bri­tish Ca­noe­ing’s high-per­for­mance team re­signed after an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into claims of groom­ing and sex­ual as­sault.

The chair of the Bri­tish Ath­letes Com­mis­sion (Bac), Vic­to­ria Ag­gar, said: “The Bri­tish Ath­letes Com­mis­sion is pleased to have been able to sup­port its mem­bers through the in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­cently un­der­taken by Bri­tish ParaSwim­ming. The Bac re­mains fo­cused on sup­port­ing its mem­bers and looks for­ward to work­ing with Bri­tish Para-Swim­ming, and all other national gov­ern­ing bod­ies, to sup­port a healthy cul­ture for all ath­letes.”

The elite Para-swim­ming pro­gramme had been al­lo­cated £11m in the four-year cy­cle up to Rio 2016 by UK Sport, which has now re­ceived the in­de­pen­dent re­port

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