‘Starved, body shamed and punished’ – British Gymnastics rocked by abuse report

Young gymnasts were starved and made to hang from the rings in punishment as part of an abusive culture in British Gymnastics, according to a damning new report.

The Whyte Review, which examined over 400 complaints, uncovered an “unacceptable culture” that has left countless young people humiliated, shamed and permanently psychologically or physically damaged by their time in the sport.

The report found that coaches had publicly shamed young girls over their weight – in some instances, gymnasts were forced to hang on the rings in the gym for a prolonged period of time for being late.

Another young athlete was forced to balance on the beam for two hours as a punishment.

Youngsters were also prevented from going to the toilet and banned from drinking water during long training sessions.

One gymnast reported being sworn at regularly from the age of nine.

Another said: “The coach would shout and scream in our faces so close that I could smell (their) breath and feel (their) spit landing on my face.”

Gymnasts were also forced to wear a “dunce’s cap” if they could not complete a particular move.

The obsession within the sport over an athlete’s weight and appearance was also highlighted as a central problem.

“Weight-taking was, at times, accompanied by an uneducated attitude to diet and a humiliating choice of language,” the review said.

“The tyranny of the scales was coach-led and quite unnecessary.

“Gymnasts took what can only be described as unhealthy steps, such as purging or dehydrating themselves, to keep their weight down in order to satisfy the demands of their coach.”

The review was prompted after the Netflix documentary “Athlete A” revealed allegations of sexual abuse within US gymnastics.

Read more: 17 former gymnasts take legal action against British Gymnastics over ‘physical and psychological abuse’

While 30 sexual abuse allegations were made as part of the UK investigation, the vast majority of complaints focused on physical and emotional abuse.

A culture of silence and a gymnast’s reliance on their coaches meant that complaints were hard to make – if problems were raised the processes to deal with them often failed.

The sport’s governing body, British Gymnastics, was described as an “insular organisation” that was disconnected from the sport, the gymnasts and people involved in the sport.

The review said they “failed to ensure that clubs and coaches, including national coaches, were acting responsibly”.

Sarah Powell, who took the job of chief executive of British Gymnastics in 2021, has offered a full apology.

She said: “The practices of the past are not going to be the practices of the future.

“I think this is a watershed moment for safeguarding not just in gymnastics but in all sports.

“This is a genuine apology…we have to set a new path, gymnastics will be different because of the bravery of those who have spoken up.”

She vowed to try and rid the sport of abusive coaches but conceded some are still working within the sport.

‘No one in sport should ever be subjected to such abuse’

Anne Whyte QC included pointed criticism at politicians over the lack of independent oversight in sport.

She said: “One wonders how many sporting scandals it will take before the government of the day appreciates it needs to take more action to protect children who participate in sport, a sector where coaches do not have a central regulator and where most complaints lack independent resolution.

“An ombudsman is an obvious step in the right direction.”

In a joint statement UK Sport and Sport England said: “The gymnasts’ experiences shared in this Review are harrowing and distressing to read. No one in sport should ever be subjected to such abuse.

“The assurance systems in place clearly did not identify, until relatively recently, long standing cultural problems in gymnastics, and for this we are sorry.

“British Gymnastics clearly fell short….we believe that withdrawing funding would not only prevent them from implementing the vital changes outlined in the report but also negatively impact on the support to and wellbeing of gymnasts now.”

For anyone who has been affected by the findings detailed by the review, a free, confidential NSPCC hotline has now been set up on 0800 587 6696.

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