Children sat on and denied access to food and the toilet: Abuse in British gymnastics laid bare
A shocking culture of physical and emotional abuse within gymnastics has been exposed in the most damning report ever published on a British Olympic sport.
The Whyte Review has uncovered incidents where children as young as seven were spit on, spat on and beaten by coaches, gaslighted, embarrassed and denied access to food and the toilet, leading to eating disorders and mental health problems.
Anne Whyte QC’s landmark 306 page report also said the culture of ‘money for medals’ within British Olympic sport may have contributed to the gymnastics scandal and called for an overhaul of the system.
UK Sport and Sport England – who co-commissioned the £3million independent inquiry in 2020 – described the gymnasts’ testimonies as ‘distressing and disturbing’ and apologized.
However, they have for the time being refused to strip British Gymnastics of public funding, despite the report accusing the governing body of a ‘collective failure’ and prioritizing performance over the well-being of athletes.
A shocking culture of physical and emotional abuse within gymnastics has been exposed in the most damning report ever published on a British Olympic sport
The Whyte Review has uncovered incidents in which children as young as seven were sat, spat on and beaten by coaches, gaslighted, fat shamed and denied access to food and the toilet
British Gymnastics’ new chief executive Sarah Powell offered her own apology, but she was unable to confirm whether any of the anonymous coaches accused of abuse in the report were still working for her organization.
The Whyte Review received evidence from more than 400 people, of which 40 percent described physical abuse and 50 percent reported emotional abuse. Allegations of sexual abuse also appeared in 30 submissions.
The report found:
- A seven-year-old girl was sat on by her coach while she had to stretch.
- An elite gymnast had to stand on a beam for two hours because she was afraid to try a new skill, while others were left crying, bleeding or injured on equipment.
- An athlete was told to climb a rope after asking for a toilet break.
- Coaches would punch gymnasts when they weren’t to attention and yell in their faces to the point that they felt their spit.
- Children who cried were forced to look at themselves in a mirror or wear donkey hats.
- Gymnasts would run out of water and food, forcing them to hide it in their socks, underpants, the lining of their suitcases and ceiling tiles.
Whyte said 25 percent of the gymnasts who testified complained of “excessive weight management,” with some girls being weighed daily.
Sarah Powell, the new CEO of British Gymnastics, apologized but could not confirm whether any of the anonymous coaches accused of abuse were still working for her organization
“The tyranny of the scales was coach-led and completely unnecessary,” she wrote. Coaches went to great lengths to monitor what gymnasts ate and weighed, to the extent that they searched luggage and rooms for food.
As a result, some gymnasts suffered from (and still suffer from) eating disorders and associated psychological problems.
“Despite knowledge of the risks associated with excessive weight management, BG has failed to ensure that clubs and coaches, including national team coaches, have acted responsibly.”
Whyte said other forms of mental abuse include “gaslighting, over-controlling behavior and suppressing athletes’ opinions and emotions.”
She wrote: ‘It seems to me that the magnitude of emotionally abusive behavior in clubs was much greater than BG had appreciated.’
Physical abuse gymnasts experienced in training included “physical discipline, inappropriate training for injuries, enforcing excessive training hours and training loads.”
Whyte also described a ‘culture of fear’ within British Gymnastics, where athletes were afraid to question their coaches’ methods or voice complaints. She said there were “deep-rooted” and “longstanding” cultural issues within the governing body.
“Certain inappropriate coaching techniques and styles have been allowed to flourish at all levels of the sport for decades,” wrote Whyte.
“Unacceptable coaching practices were normalized and allowed to develop in some circles in the pursuit of success.”
Whyte also criticized British Gymnastics for ‘marking their own safety homework’ and cursed their complaints procedure.
“BG estimated that it had received some 3,500 complaints throughout the period, but admitted it had no overall record of complaints received between 2008 and 2016,” Whyte admitted.
In response to the report, UK Sport CEO Sally Munday denied the idea of ’money for medals’
She listed 17 recommendations for British Gymnastics to perform, while also questioning the entire ethos of British Olympic sport.
“The incurable interpretation is that the mission process was a window dressing for those sports, such as gymnastics, where medals were realistically expected and the medals mattered more than amber assessments and more than the well-being of athletes,” Whyte said.
“I don’t have an accurate way of assessing whether perceptions around ‘money for medals’ had a negative effect on the well-being gymnasts. When discussing the matter with BG’s current chairman, he accepted BG’s own responsibility for managing the pressure on gymnasts that can arise from funding issues.
Sport England reflected in its meetings with me that its own historic performance-related goals had probably caused the wrong kind of behavior in sport, although it couldn’t know whether it had caused abusive behaviour.
“Medals will always be a measure of sporting success, and the tension between public funding of elite sport and the need to succeed will never be eliminated.
‘What can change is the culture of a certain sport. This will only happen when the leadership of NGBs along with the leadership of funding bodies find ways to reassure athletes (and coaches) and the public that the definition of success is square on a demonstration of excellence in all aspects of a world-class program and not mainly on medals.’
In response to the report, UK Sports chief executive Sally Munday denied the idea of ’money for medals’.
Powell was hired from British Gymnastics last June, replacing Jane Allen (pictured), who stepped down in 2020 with a severance package despite serving as CEO for 10 years – the time of the scandal
But she said: ‘We welcome today’s report and accept and endorse all of its recommendations.
The gymnasts’ experiences shared in this review are harrowing and disturbing to read. We want to publicly acknowledge and thank everyone who has come forward bravely.
As the report found, the existing assurance systems, until relatively recently, did not identify long-term cultural problems in gymnastics. We’re sorry.’
Powell, chief executive of British Gymnastics, said: “It is unacceptable to read the memory of these individuals who have had such a bad experience with the sport, which clearly affected them and who suffered because of it. It’s emotional for me, I’m a mom and sports shouldn’t be doing this.
“I had to speak to gymnasts this morning – and it was difficult. I looked them in the eye and said sorry.’
Powell was appointed to British Gymnastics last June, replacing Jane Allen, who controversially stepped down in 2020 with a severance package despite serving as chief executive for 10 years – the time of the scandal.
“I can only hope that I think this is a turning point, not just for gymnastics, but for protection in all sports,” Powell added.