By Aisha Sembhi
Content warning: this article contains discussion of physical and verbal abuse
Managerial and coaching positions within the international gymnastics’ community have been subject to unprecedented attention throughout the summer of 2020 and beyond. An era that originally had the potential to act a period of unity in the lead-up to the now postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics has since evolved into a global scandal, in which Team GB has found itself at the forefront.
Following the release of the Netflix documentary Athlete A, which chronicled the tragedy festering within USA Gymnastics and the prolific abuse at the hands of team doctor, Larry Nassar, former British gymnasts have found the courage to finally tell their own stories of the emotional, verbal and physical abuse they faced at the hands of the British Gymnastics coaches and officials. Allegations against the organisation include claims of body shaming, extreme diet techniques and starvation, physically violent punishments, and a prioritising of medals over the physical and mental health of the athletes.
Gymnasts who have found national fame through international competitions have been at the forefront of the campaign. Olympic bronze medallist Amy Tinkler was among the first to speak out, confirming via Twitter that the primary reason behind her early retirement from the sport was the lack of action taken by British Gymnastics in response to a formal complaint she had submitted months prior.
Ellie Downie, Tinkler’s teammate during the Rio 2016 Olympics, goes further, recalling the toxic attitudes towards food and weight loss she was exposed to during her time with British Gymnastics. She claimed the team’s nutritionists would force gymnasts to both document their food intake and provide pictures in their underwear in order to measure their weight losses and gains.
The abuse was not limited to verbal body-shaming, becoming physical and violent in some instances. Former Commonwealth medallist Lisa Mason describes how, in her training for the uneven bars, coaches would put AstroTurf beneath the bars to ensure her feet would burn if they were not kept high enough. Nineteen-year-old Catherine Lyons furthers this claim, detailing the physical abuse she was subject to throughout her short-lived gymnastics career. She described being not only starved and beaten, but also locked in cupboards by coaches in an attempt to get her to stop crying. Lyons, though nationally recognised as a gifted athlete, gave up on her Olympic dream, and was diagnosed with PTSD.
The mounting claims have encouraged the establishment of an independent review, which has since been commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England. Known as the Whythe Review, the investigation aims to dissect the flaws in management within British Gymnastics and determine how best the organisation can reform its method of coaching.
The announcement of this review follows the retirement of British Gymnastics chief Jane Allen who, despite the increasing attention drawn to the scandal, maintains her withdrawal from the role has no relation to the growing accusations against her management. Allen had previously acknowledged the scandal, commenting that the number of allegations against the organisation suggested that gymnasts were uncomfortable raising their concerns, therefore failing to find fault in the coaches themselves.
Despite this, Allen has claimed “full responsibility” for what she describes as obvious shortcomings within the organisation, and, in conversation with BBC Sport, alluded to an apology to athletes and commended them on their bravery. Alastair Marks has since been appointed the interim executive of British Gymnastics in Allen’s absence, and will almost certainly face the legal fallout of the investigation.
Several senior managing members of British Gymnastics remain subject to investigation. Notably, as of November 2020, national coach Colin Still remains suspended following the exposure of abusive e-mails in which he described Amy Tinkler’s physical build with derogatory language.
Whilst several former athletes have been confident in speaking out, the national gymnastics community remains fragile. There is the concern that promising competitors may be unwilling to describe their current training environments in the lead up to the Tokyo 2021 Olympics and Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, out of fear they may become unfavourable choices. The testimonials of previously professional gymnasts suggest the culture within competitive gymnastics means intervention is often far too intimidating to be considered. The athlete community remains hopeful that the Whythe report will reveal the extent to which British Gymnastics had failed to acknowledge and resolve coaching misconduct, and result in a total revision of training methodology.
Image: Martin Rulsch via Wikimedia Commons