In the summer of 2020, several current and former gymnasts spoke out about alleged mistreatment they had suffered in their sport. These allegations concerned emotional and physical abuse meted by coaches to athletes. Indeed, it was further averred that British Gymnastics (“BG”) had not only failed to prevent such behaviour, but had condoned it in the pursuit of national and international competitive success. As a result of this, UK Sport and Sport England commissioned Anne Whyte QC to review these allegations and provide a report along with recommendations. She was asked to determine whether:
- Gymnasts’ wellbeing and welfare were at the centre of the culture of BG, its registered clubs and members coaches and if not, why not;
- Safeguarding complaints have been dealt with appropriately in the sport of gymnastics, and if not why not:
- Gymnasts, or their parents, carers or guardians, have felt unable to raise complaints with appropriate authorities and if so, why.
Practitioners ought to be cognisant of abuse claims arising out of such allegations. Indeed, on 12th June 2022, Eloise Jotischsky became the first elite gymnast to successfully settle a claim against BG for abuse she experienced in the sport. She alleged that her coach, Mr. Andrew Griffiths, subjected her to inappropriate weight management techniques and verbal harassment at Heathrow Gymnastics Club. BG admitted liability and received a full apology from the governing body’s Chief Executive.
This article is split into three parts:
- Part I outlines the findings of the Whyte Review, focusing on the three areas of concern outlined above.
- Part II sets out the recommendations.
- Part III concludes by reflecting on the implications for abuse claims.
Part I: The Findings of the Whyte Review
The Review received 400 submissions in their call for evidence. The mistreatment largely fell into two categories:
- Physical Abuse. This included physical chastisement, inappropriate training on injury, enforcement of excessive training hours to the point of physical pain and exhaustion beyond acceptable limits, and the withholding of food, water and access to the toilet.
- Emotional Abuse. This included shouting, swearing, name-calling and excessively controlling behaviour (gaslighting). One particular form of emotional abuse was excessive weight management of female gymnasts. Ms. Whyte QC found this was designed to meet presumed aesthetic values within the sport and to generate body shapes thought to be favoured by judges. As a result of this, gymnasts took unhealthy steps, such as purging or dehydrating themselves, to keep their weight down in order to satisfy the demands of their coaches.
BG now accepts that it failed to give the same consideration to emotional and physical abuse as it had to sexual abuse. Despite knowing of the risks of excessive weight control, they failed to ensure that clubs and coaches acted responsibly in this regard. This was because of a ‘coach-led culture of fear’, in which coaches were allowed to exert excessive control over the training and the lives of gymnasts. Elite programmes were decentralised, meaning that talented gymnasts trained in regional clubs rather than in one facility. This meant that individual gymnasts worked regularly with one personal coach, upon whom there was a risk of becoming excessively dependent.
Moreover, the Review found that there were gaps in coach education which contributed to mistreatment. Indeed, the formal education of coaches was predominantly technical and concentrated on ‘what’ should be done, rather than ‘how’ it should be done. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for coaches was virtually non-existent. Many of the coaches who were subject to criticism obtained their qualifications years ago. Accordingly, deficits in education were compounded by BG’s failure to update the knowledge and practice of coaches.
The Review was critical of BG’s handling of safeguarding complaints. Complaints were beset by delays and compounded by the failure of BG to invest sufficient human and financial resources into the management of safeguarding concerns. While there a mechanism for convening a disciplinary panel, they were only used for the most serious cases, and were rarely used. In reality, most complaints and disciplinary issues about members were dealt with by BG officers and case management teams.
Insufficient attention was given to the management of ‘low-level complaints’ within clubs. Had these examples of poor practice been identified and appropriately managed, those same coaches would not have continued to use inappropriate coaching techniques. The Whyte Review noted that BG had improved their complaints handling process (with the arrival of a dedication Safeguarding Manager and a software platform to record alleged breaches of Standards of Conduct). However, it concluded that there was still considerable work to be done to ensure that complaints were managed consistently and efficiently.
Inability or reluctance to raise complaints
Athletes feared de-selection, demotion and loss of funding if they spoke out. A significant number of gymnasts had been discouraged from any role in decision-making. As mentioned above, they forge intense, protracted relationships with their coach, upon whom they are dependent for success. Further, BG now accepts that inadequacies within their complaints system meant that coaches were able to break rules, and nothing happened. This had the obvious capacity to stifle complaints.
Further, there was a lack of focus at Board level of BG on culture, safeguarding and welfare. The Whyte Review noted that these aspects of the sport were not deemed ‘commercially productive’. There was no enquiry about either safeguarding or complaints. Useful information about emotional and physical abuse was absent, which may have contributed to the sense that the Board was detached from what was happening in its clubs.
Part II: Recommendations
The table below sets out the recommendations for BG to focus the sport on athlete welfare:
|Safeguarding and Welfare||Revise and update its mandatory safeguarding courses and introduce mandatory safeguarding training for all club owners and managers.
|Revise and improve welfare provision for high performance gymnasts, and their parents, including: a more thorough induction process; access to an independent disclosure service; and access to a dedicated Welfare Officer from outside a gymnast’s club.
|Review the types and level of support provided to non-Olympic disciplines and ensure these are improved in light of the findings of this report.
|Review the types and level of support provided to non-Olympic disciplines
|Ensure its case management system for complaints is fit for purpose and enables a record to be kept of the nature and number of complaints.
|Provide better guidance in its internal policies about how to investigate complaints and concerns.
|Require clubs to have a complaints policy for safeguarding concerns, operate a system for neutral reporting of low-level concerns
|Ensure that all welfare-related complaints are independently investigated and determined by a wholly independent panel.
|Ensure that it notifies parties involved in complaints expeditiously.
|Standards and Education||Appoint a Direction of Education with responsibility for the education and training of coaches.
|Review policies with regard to athlete welfare and update them.
|Produce a gymnast’s handbook to include standards of conduct, key policies and information about welfare officers.
|Revise and update the educational programme for coaches and welfare officers.
|Increase its direct contact with registered clubs to promote and monitor compliance.
|Governance and Oversight||The Board must assume responsibility for implementing recommendations and publishing progress reports.
|BG must appoint independent Board members with relevant expertise.
|BG must implement effective governance pathways to ensure that the views and interests of athletes and their parents are known to the Board and taken into consideration during relevant decision-making.|
Part III: Implications for Abuse Claims
There are two points which practitioners in abuse claims should draw on from this report.
First, the Whyte Review sheds light on physical and emotional abuse in sport. Indeed, it concluded that there was a better understanding within gymnastic of the seriousness of sexual abuse allegations than about the features and effects of physical and emotional abuse. Physical and emotional abuse can have devastating implications. Accounts within the Review included gymnasts being forced to train while injured, verbal fat-shaming in front of peers and being labelled as ‘mentally weak’. Practitioners must be alive to the seriousness of such abuse when pleading or defending such claims.
Second, it highlights the importance of institutional culture in abuse claims. Throughout the report, much reference is made to how BG was focused on a drive to succeed, at the expense of athlete welfare. This manifested in a substandard handling process for ‘low-level’ complaints, and a failure to listen to the voices of athletes. Indeed, this was why the Review recommended that BG operate a ‘low-level’ policy so that all breaches of the Standards of Conduct are adequately monitored
About the Author
Anirudh Mandagere is a junior civil practitioner with a special interest in sports law. He has acted in claims arising of sports injuries, ranging from gymnastics to mixed martial arts. Outside of work, he enjoys running, wild swimming and playing badminton.