Sport

The Culture Of Fear In British Gymnastics

Joe Holmes-Milner

TW: This article contains accounts of: Physical violence; Sexual violence; Abuse.

Rio 2016 represented the pinnacle of Great British gymnastics.

GB won seven medals – a record haul. A million British children flooded gymnasiums in the subsequent month with dreams of turning cartwheels into vaults and floor routines. Ten million viewers tuned into BBC One to watch Max Whitlock win gold on the pommel horse.

Now, prominent athletes have come forward to describe their suffering within the system and how British Gymnastics is built on a foundation of bullying, abuse and fear.

The catalyst for GB athletes coming forward has been the Netflix documentary ‘Athlete A’, detailing sexual abuse of American gymnasts by team doctor Larry Nassar and the pitiless culture that allowed him to operate.

It is alleged that coaches’ unhealthy obsession with weight contributed to long-term eating disorders and mental health problems among GB gymnasts

Elite level gymnasts on average begin training at the age of 4. Coaching and competitions start not long after, so the pressure on child athletes is immense.

Accusations at the elite level focus on the Great Britain national training camp at Lilleshall in Shropshire, presided over by Amanda Reddin. It is alleged that coaches’ unhealthy obsession with weight contributed to long-term eating disorders and mental health problems among GB gymnasts.

Nicole Pavier says that she was weighed twice a day, had her weight written on a whiteboard and discussed by coach Claire Barbieri in front of her peers. She developed bulimia at 14.

Ruby Harrold described being given a baby’s plate to eat from at Lilleshall. Francesca Fox was told by coaches that she was “fat” and “looked like a hippo,” leading her to weigh herself up to 10 times a day.

Nottingham’s Ellie Downie claimed she would skip meals before weigh-ins and was once told by a national coach that she “hoped the painkillers [Downie] was holding for an injury were diet pills.”

Tinkler’s complaints against Reddin were dismissed following an internal review with no explanation

Amy Tinkler, a bronze medallist on the floor in Rio, retired from the sport in 2019 and described Lilleshall as a “prison.” She also detailed an email exchange in which national coach Collin Smith said she was “heavy” but glad she was “not a fat dwarf.”

Amanda Reddin, who has stepped aside during the investigation, stated: “It is wrong that my reputation within the sport that I love is now subject to a trial by media rather than through the proper processes.”

But what are the ‘proper processes’?

Tinkler’s complaints against Reddin were dismissed following an internal review with no explanation. She has said that she has “no confidence” in the British Gymnastics Integrity Unit. Accusations against Reddin for physically abusing a young gymnast during her time at Brighton Gymnastics Club in the 1980s were similarly dismissed.

Wilson feared that speaking out would cost him a place at the Tokyo Games and said that GB gymnasts are treated like “pieces of meat” in the insatiable hunt for medals

In 2012, British Gymnastics were informed that ex-European champion Catherine Lyons was struck by a coach on her thigh. The coach was investigated, briefly suspended then reinstated until further allegations emerged in 2017. Her parents were not informed of the incident by British Gymnastics. Lyons was 10 at the time and has since retired from the sport.

Olympic medallist Nile Wilson’s complaints about an altercation with a senior member of Leeds Gymnastics Club were dropped following a club review – a decision upheld by British Gymnastics. Wilson feared that speaking out would cost him a place at the Tokyo Games and said that GB gymnasts are treated like “pieces of meat” in the insatiable hunt for medals.

Claims of bullying and abuse trickle down to the club and grassroots levels.

Scarlett Williams, a gymnast at Nottingham Gymnastics Academy (previously directed by Claire Barbieri) said: “Our lunchboxes would be checked and if any ‘packaged food’ was in there of chocolate or sweets, it would get thrown away. Comments were made to gymnasts like: ‘You can’t land that skill from all the sweets you have been eating.’”

At City of Liverpool Gym, parents were banned from watching practice as windows were purposefully obscured by screens. Former members Amber Leyland and Abbie Caig both described having severe injuries ignored by coaches who forced them to continue.

Allen’s retirement will hopefully provide the scope for a culture shift – a necessary external review by UK Sport is underway. Swift, strong action is needed to ensure that the gymnasts of tomorrow do not suffer the same abuse

Emily Marsden describes South Durham coaches ordering all their young gymnasts to block Amy Tinkler on social media after the Olympian moved to South Essex gym. Tinkler had branded South Durham gym a “toxic environment.”

Paige Southern-Reason, 8, claims that she was tied to the horizontal bars at Heathrow Gymnastics Club and screamed at by coaches.

British Gymnastics CEO Jane Allen has overseen a win-at-all-costs culture that normalised the maltreatment of child athletes, then intimidated them against speaking out. Allen’s retirement will hopefully provide the scope for a culture shift – a necessary external review by UK Sport is underway. Swift, strong action is needed to ensure that the gymnasts of tomorrow do not suffer the same abuse.

https://gymnastalliance.com/

Joe Holmes-Milner

Featured image used courtesy of Rick McCharles via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image use license here.

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