The recent leak of the independent investigation commissioned jointly by British Canoeing and UK Sport has revealed another Olympic sport where athlete welfare appears to have been compromised through a win at all cost attitude. The report is damning, highlighting a culture where key individuals were “‘untouchable’ … able to act with impunity and without fear of repercussion” and where management “marginalised those who had complained”. The report echoed previous independent investigations where genuine concerns for athlete welfare were brushed aside with allegations of bullying by the coach in question minimised despite previous concerns regarding coaching behaviours.
After the article from the BBC was published, we were reminded on social media that the duty of care concerns in Olympic sport from this period have still not been fully addressed. It is due to investigative journalism that we are made aware of the issues our athletes are facing and the difficulties organisations appear to have in minimising athlete safeguarding concerns, despite athlete welfare being high on the agenda for the Minister of Sport and UK funding organisations.
In 2017/2018 the Guardian posted a series of articles regarding athlete welfare concerns and duty of care issues in British Gymnastics. The lead article focused on a personal coach who was under police investigation by the Child Abuse and Sexual Offences Command. Reports were made of alleged abusive practices such as children being pushed from the beam by the coach in anger, a young child being shut inside a cupboard for over an hour after making a mistake with a routine, body shaming practices and children expected to participate in training when too unwell.
Parents of the children involved took their concerns to the NGB who launched an inquiry. British Gymnastics confirmed an investigation took place and admitted they failed to suspend the coach for alleged emotional and physical abuse. BG stated the outcome of the investigation resulted in a recommendation for remedial action.
Despite the implementation of ‘remedial action’, some incidents being looked at by the police happened after the conclusion of the 2012 investigation. Whistleblowers claimed had appropriate action been taken at the time, further alleged abusive coaching may not have occurred. A parent told the Guardian investigations were hampered through a fear of reprisal with key witnesses either too ‘afraid to come forward or giving information anonymously, which has then been considered malicious’. It was suggested results on the international stage outweigh athlete wellbeing with fear of withdrawal of funding or biased selection stated as reasons not to give evidence in abuse investigations.
The initial article led to others raising their concerns regarding BG’s handling of abuse claims and a second article went to print two days later. This highlighted similar claims of child cruelty at three separate clubs where ‘Olympic hopefuls train’. The article did not state whether the whistleblowers in this article were satisfied with the outcome of their complaints to BG.
British Gymnastics came under media scrutiny again a few months later with both the BBC and the Guardian reporting more upheaval within the sport. The BBC published an interview with Dan Keatings, one of Britain’s most decorated male gymnasts who confirmed a culture of fear in speaking out about issues, and discussed a culture where he was ridiculed about his weight and regularly criticised about his performance; this was said to impact negatively on his mental health leading him to feel depressed. Keatings described retirement as ‘like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders and it shouldn’t be like that … you should be happy that you’ve had the career you’ve had, but I was happy to get away from the sport and start a new life.’
The Guardian published an article on the same day, stating that the Minister for Sport was to be questioned in Parliament regarding the continued dispute between athletes in the World Class Programme and the NGB over issues with funding contracts. A number of athletes were in negotiation with the NGB around earnings through sponsorship deals, which many rely on as a source of income. An insider described the situation as “complete chaos, evidence of weak leadership and British Gymnastics’ need for complete control over athletes.” The article also described an environment where fear of reprisal for speaking up over welfare concerns was ripe and a suggestion that favoured coaches were able to use ‘cruel and manipulative strategies on elite gymnasts’ without sanction. An anonymous coach considered BG to be complicit with athlete abuse after a male coach who was found to have sent an inappropriate picture to a junior gymnast was not removed from his post.
Further allegations against British Gymnastics were made 5 months later in an article in the Guardian where a retired gymnast discussed unhealthy demands over weight loss and the impact it has had on her in adult life. She recalled having set portions of food on ‘baby plates’ at a national training camp and feeling hungry on occasions but not wanting to eat much as she had been told she was too fat.
With this much discontent and disconnect within the sport of gymnastics in Britain you have to question why no one has recommended British Gymnastics undertake an impartial independent inquiry. Many of the issues highlighted in the media reports regarding BG are similar to those uncovered in independent investigations within other Olympic sports. Surely the only way to combat these issues is to fully investigate and put safeguards in place to counteract them. In my own work I see these patterns of behaviours and athlete welfare concerns regularly at the elite level through the normalisation of deviant coaching practices, it appears that coaching methods within the sport are Draconian, even viewed within todays win at all costs culture. Too many people view the gymnasts as elite athletes rather than the fact many are first and foremost children, who are all too often expected to make adult decisions which they are not emotionally equipped to make. Are we seeing a culture similar to that of the US which enabled paedophiles such as Larry Nassar to work their way into the system undetected and remain in a position of power for far too long? I sincerely hope not.