Gym­nas­tics faces cri­sis over con­tract dis­pute

• Whit­lock among those yet to sign deal • Body ac­cused of a cul­ture of fear

The Guardian - Sport - - Front Page - Martha Kel­ner

Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics is fac­ing a cri­sis with its big­gest stars, in­clud­ing the dou­ble Olympic cham­pion Max Whit­lock, re­fus­ing to sign World Class Per­for­mance Pro­gramme con­tracts and be­ing threat­ened with hav­ing their fund­ing with­drawn.

An in­ter­nal power strug­gle be­tween the per­for­mance, com­mer­cial and man­age­ment teams about the con­tent of the con­tract has led to a re­bel­lion among the ath­letes. The Guardian un­der­stands al­most all of the team which won a record seven medals at the Rio Olympics last sum­mer have re­fused to sign the con­tract. The en­tire men’s artis­tic squad, in­clud­ing Whit­lock who be­came the first Bri­ton to de­fend a world ti­tle suc­cess­fully last month, have re­fused to sign. The Olympic medal­list Amy Tin­kler and the Euro­pean cham­pion El­lie Downie have not signed.

Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics said in a state­ment that it was cur­rently “in­volved in con­sul­ta­tion” with the ath­letes re­gard­ing the World Class Per­for­mance Pro­gramme agree­ments. It added: “To date, over 50% of the ath­letes on our World Class Per­for­mance Pro­gramme have al­ready signed the agree­ment. The process is still on­go­ing and due to fin­ish at the end of Novem­ber. Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics is work­ing hard to en­sure that all ath­letes are com­fort­able with the agree­ment be­fore sign­ing be­cause we re­spect their views on mat­ters that di­rectly im­pact them.”

In Au­gust the ath­letes were warned they had three days to put pen to pa­per or would risk hav­ing their UK Sport fund­ing with­drawn. But scores of par­ents and ath­lete agents wrote to Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics to voice con­cern about the con­tent of the In­di­vid­ual Ath­lete Plan part of the con­tract, which they claim would have left the gym­nasts open to ex­ploita­tion. They were then told that the con­tract would be re­vis­ited af­ter the world cham­pi­onships which took place in Mon­treal last month.

One in­sider de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion as “com­plete chaos, ev­i­dence of weak lead­er­ship and Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics’ need for com­plete con­trol over the ath­letes. They are the most im­por­tant peo­ple in the sport but once again they feel they’re be­ing ex­ploited. To be a world-class gym­nast all you need is the ath­lete, coach and the gym and they want to know where all the money is go­ing.” It is un­der­stood there will be show­down talks be­tween Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics and the ath­letes to­mor­row as the gov­ern­ing body tries to find a res­o­lu­tion to the prob­lem.

Separately the Guardian has spo­ken to sev­eral se­nior coaches who called for the res­ig­na­tion of Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics’ chief ex­ec­u­tive, Jane Allen, claim­ing her “ap­palling lead­er­ship” has cre­ated a “cul­ture of fear” where peo­ple are afraid to speak up about ath­lete wel­fare fail­ings for fear of reprisals.

The coaches, who be­tween them have led gym­nasts to many Euro­pean, world and Olympic com­pe­ti­tions over the past 30 years, paint a pic­ture of an or­gan­i­sa­tion ruled by favouritism and where ath­lete and coach wel­fare is rel­e­gated be­hind medals. An email writ­ten by the vet­eran coach John Pir­rie on be­half of some of the 90 coaches he works with as a con­sul­tant and cir­cu­lated widely in gym­nas­tic cir­cles calls for Allen to “fall on her sword”.

“It is time for fresh lead­er­ship,” wrote Pir­rie. “In view of the cat­a­strophic fail­ings over which you, Jane Allen, pre­side, your po­si­tion has be­come un­ten­able in the eyes of too many.”

Among seven bul­let points de­signed to il­lus­trate Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics’ short­com­ings, Pir­rie stated: “It ap­pears that some favoured coaches, well known to have used cruel and ma­nip­u­la­tive strate­gies on elite gym­nasts, con­tinue to work with­out sanc­tion in Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics-reg­is­tered clubs.”

The in­di­vid­u­als whom the Guardian spoke to said they con­sid­ered Britain’s

per­for­mance at the Rio Olympics to have been de­spite – rather than be­cause – of the gov­ern­ing body. As a re­sult of that suc­cess their UK Sport fund­ing in­creased by more than £2m to £16.7m for the four-year cy­cle to Tokyo 2020, with an ad­di­tional £8.3m from Sport Eng­land to de­velop the sport at grass­roots level. Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics was even named na­tional gov­ern­ing body of the year at the BT Sport In­dus­try Awards in 2016.

But that award was re­garded as close to par­ody by many within the sport. “Key per­sons in the sport feel that the ‘gov­ern­ing body of the year award’ is a to­tal farce,” wrote Pir­rie, in his email to Allen, “con­ning UK Sport into be­liev­ing that the as­so­ci­a­tion’s lead­er­ship is peer­less and we are one big happy fam­ily. This couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth.”

The Guardian re­vealed ear­lier this year that Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics did not sus­pend a coach who was re­ported to its wel­fare team for al­leged emo­tional and phys­i­cal abuse in 2012. The same coach was in­ter­viewed by po­lice this year on sus­pi­cion of child cru­elty. An­other coach told the Guardian Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics was con­sid­ered “com­plicit” with ath­lete abuse af­ter it failed to re­move a coach who was found to have sent an in­ap­pro­pri­ate pic­ture to a ju­nior gym­nast.

“This coach was body sham­ing a child yet re­mains in his job,” said one in­di­vid­ual, who re­quested to re­main anony­mous. “By not do­ing any­thing to pun­ish him Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics is com­plicit in this abuse. There has been a lot made of ath­lete wel­fare cases at Bri­tish Cy­cling and quite rightly but in many ways this is worse. These are chil­dren we’re talk­ing about and you’re putting them off the sport for life. Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics is re­spon­si­ble for that.”

An­other coach said it was a pre­vail­ing opin­ion among se­nior coaches that the gov­ern­ing body is not fit for pur­pose. “There is a cul­ture of fear and peo­ple worry about go­ing against the grain be­cause of the pos­si­bil­ity of reprisals, of ath­letes and coaches not be­ing se­lected be­cause their face doesn’t fit.

“Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics take duty of care se­ri­ously when it suits them,” the coach added. “I’ve seen first hand coaches who are not in favour be­ing sus­pended more than once for rel­a­tively triv­ial is­sues. On the other hand, coaches are al­lowed to get away with abuse cases be­cause they are favourites among the Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics hi­er­ar­chy and cosy up to those in power.”

Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics strongly re­jects the ac­cu­sa­tions, say­ing: “Bri­tish Gym­nas­tics has a track record of good gov­er­nance as ev­i­denced by our ad­her­ence to the UK Sport ‘Code of Sports Gov­er­nance’.

“We have ro­bust gov­er­nance poli­cies and pro­ce­dures to cover safe­guard­ing, com­plaints, stan­dards of con­duct and GB team se­lec­tions, all avail­able on­line. Any­one with a con­cern or com­plaint should come for­ward and we can as­sure them the mat­ter would be dealt with im­par­tially.

“The chief ex­ec­u­tive, Jane Allen, leads an or­gan­i­sa­tion com­mit­ted to creat­ing and in­spir­ing last­ing suc­cess for gym­nas­tics, as well as driv­ing through im­por­tant and pos­i­tive change.”

Alex Livesey/Getty Im­ages

Max Whit­lock is one of sev­eral lead­ing Bri­tish gym­nasts who have not signed World Class Per­for­mance Pro­gramme con­tracts Chris Brunt is con­soled af­ter North­ern Ire­land were elim­i­nated by Switzer­land in the World Cup play-off in Basel. Switzer­land qual­i­fied thanks to Ri­cardo Ro­dríguez’s con­tro­ver­sial first-leg penalty

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