Anne Whyte’s shocking report on the “systemic” physical and emotional abuse of young athletes is a devastating blow to gymnastics’ reputation.
But as the QC makes clear early in her 306 page report, While arguably the most serious to date, it is far from the only sports welfare scandal to cast a shadow over publicly funded British sports in recent years.
The governing bodies of cycling, swimming and canoeing are just some of the other sports that have had to apologize after researching their culture. UK Athletics remains critical of its previous track record in protecting children after an independent review of its policies revealed a “lack of precision” in the lines of responsibility.
With each passing controversy, some of the pride in the perceived thoroughness, attention to detail and professionalism that British sport was known for has eroded. After all, if the high-performance system was truly world-class, how could all this have happened in front of the sports authorities?
Indeed, Whyte says in her report: “One wonders how many sports scandals it will be before the current government realizes it needs to take more action to protect children who play sports, an sector where coaches have no central regulator and where most complaints do not have an independent solution.”
So if more parents now consider whether to let their kids play gymnastics, and victims continue to take legal action against the governing body, could all of this lead to a rethink of the entire British sports system?
Crucially, while the abuse in gymnastics has been at the grassroots as well as at the top of the sport, Whyte is clear that Britain’s relentless pursuit of Olympic glory and strict linkage of medal potential to funding may have come at a cost. of the duty of care.
She says she has “no accurate way of assessing whether perceptions around ‘money for medals’ have a negative effect on gymnasts’ well-being”. But the QC also points out that UK Sport’s previous ‘no compromise’ approach to funding athletes could “imply a philosophy of winning at all costs that degrades athlete’s well-being and well-being under performance and success” .
“It is possible that it could be interpreted as a slogan as an incentive to push everyone to their limits and thus put tacit pressure on NGBs [national governing bodies]coaches and gymnasts feel an unacceptable amount of pressure,” the Whyte report says.
Ambitious medal goals have been credited with the continued success Team GB has enjoyed over the past two decades. But for Whyte, they are another concern.
“I asked UK Sport if it had done any research on the impact of medal goals on the wellbeing of athletes in the sport. It didn’t,” she says.
Whyte describes how the evaluation and monitoring process used by UK Sport to assess the performance programs in which it invests tens of millions of pounds “did not accurately reflect, with any consistency, the state of the gymnastics program as far as the wellbeing and culture of athletes was concerned.” …although the well-being and culture of athletes were apparently measures of success that British Gymnastics had to demonstrate to justify funding”.
Speaking to my colleague Natalie Pirks after the Whyte report was published, UK Sport chief executive Sally Munday said: “We do not accept the idea that medals have been prioritized in the system over other things… I reject the idea that there is ‘money for medals’ ever existed.
“I have been in this position since 2019 and before that I was chief executive of a national governing body [England Hockey] For 10 years… every year we received money from UK Sport. During that time I never felt the pressure to deliver medals at all costs.”
UK Sport emphasizes that the duty of care for athletes is ultimately the responsibility of national governing bodies and that it is not a regulatory body.
In a statement, however, UK Sport admitted that “until recently, the existing insurance systems clearly did not reveal any long-standing cultural problems in gymnastics, and we are sorry for that”.
Former Team GB cyclist and Olympic gold medalist Callum Skinner was unimpressed – the athlete rights activist who tweeted that UK Sport “wouldn’t know good culture if it slapped them in the face”.
Campaign group Gymnasts for Change said: “Ultimately, medals took precedence over the well-being of athletes.
“Delivering a new standard for the well-being of athletes will not jeopardize our success on the global stage, but will of course create the conditions for success at every level. More happy and healthy gymnasts will lead to more individuals being drawn to the sport, members remain participants for longer, and talented gymnasts who reach greater heights because they are able to be helped to their full potential.”
The campaign group called for mandatory reporting of known and suspected child sexual abuse, and greater transparency about suspended coaches.
This isn’t the first time the broader financing system has come under scrutiny.
In 2020, for example, a report found a “culture of fear” at British Canoeing, saying it “appears to have arisen as a result of a commonly held view that the pursuit of medals at all costs; and since elite funding is inextricably linked.” linked to UK Sport, British Canoeing used this relationship to facilitate the spread of this culture of fear”.
In recent years UK Sport has taken a number of steps to improve its duty of care and welfare, including a public consultation, new funding for the British Athletes Commission, a culture survey, a new Sports Integrity department and a shift from “uncompromising” and towards “winning the right way”. Some believe they can do even more.
Last year a House of Lords committee on sports and recreation said: “Monitoring what works for duty of care and assurance in the sector is insufficient. The credibility of [grassroots funding agency] Sport England and UK Sport is undermined if the threat of financial sanctions is increased but not implemented. They must go ahead and remove funding from NGBs that do not meet the required duty of care and safety standards.”
But even after the damning Whyte Review, UK Sport chose not to extort money from British Gymnastics, saying: “We believe this would not only prevent them from making the essential changes outlined in the report. , but would also negatively impact the support and well-being of gymnasts now.”
However, UK Sport warned that “continued funding will depend on the new leadership team making significant changes to the sport”.
Significantly, Whyte is calling for an independent sports ombudsman – as suggested by Baroness Grey-Thompson in 2017 having completed her own duty of care evaluation – is “a clear step in the right direction”.
On Thursday, the former Paralympic champion expressed her hope that her recommendation would be followed this time around, telling BBC Sport’s Laura Scott: “Sport needs to step up … to say ‘we’re going to do something different’.
Grey-Thompson continued: “I still think we can win medals, but we’re applying duty of care to everyone in the system. We need to do something. I really believe there should be an independent body, because the cost of this assessment, The human cost, the financial cost, isn’t one that sport can continue to afford.”
The government has recently shown a will to crack down on the English sports authorities. It has vowed to enact legislation to create an independent football regulator amid concerns about the board. The ECB has been threatened with the same in the wake of the racism controversy over cricket.
But ministers are still not convinced that a pan-sports ombudsman or regulator is needed. They believe that a new independent disclosure and grievance service that UK Sport is testing, and which it believes will uphold the highest standards of conduct and ethics in sport, is sufficient for now.
In a statement, the government said UK Sport and Sport England “have already taken important steps to improve protections in sport … and we are strengthening our position on trust legislation”.
But many believe the problem extends beyond the sports authorities.
Cath Bishop – a former British Olympic rower and silver medalist – recently told The Guardian that “there are many more accomplices to this – the media is only chasing their results; sponsors are mainly interested in funding those who are going to win in the short term. At the governmental level, the short-term boost to national pride through organizing sporting events or winning medals takes precedence over longer-term opportunities for human and social development through sport.”
In her report, Whyte acknowledges that “medals will always be a measure of sporting success” and accepts that improvements have been made to the duty of care.
But she adds that changing the culture of a particular sport “will only happen when the leadership of NGBs and the leadership of funding bodies find ways to reassure athletes [and coaches] and the public that the definition of success is based entirely on a demonstration of excellence in all aspects of a world-class program and not primarily on medal winning.”
With the 10th anniversary of London 2012, just weeks away, this was already a natural time to reflect on British sport.
Sadly, in addition to the medals British athletes have since delivered, a dark side of the past decade will now emerge – increasing concern about toxic cultures and the suffering that has come with such success.
And in the wake of Whyte’s findings, many will argue that there has never been a greater need for so much wellness as winning.
More about this story
- Nicole Pavier is among a number of gymnasts who have made the first accusations of a “culture of fear” within the “mentally and emotionally abusive” gymnastics sport.
- Olympians Becky and Ellie Downie saying that abusive behavior in gym training has become “ingrained” and “completely normalized”, while then British Gymnastics chief Jane Allen says she is “appalled and embarrassed” by the allegations.
- Olympic bronze medalist Amy Tinkler criticizes British Gymnastics for the time it took to investigate a formal complaint it filed in 2019.
- Pavier’s former coach, Claire Barbierichas been suspended while the head coach of British Gymnastics Amanda Reddin steps aside after accusations are leveled against her. Both denied the allegations against them.
- Olympic bronze medalist Nile Wilson claims gymnasts are “treated like pieces of meat”.
- BBC Sport unveils leading coach Liz Kincaid was taken from Britain’s coaching squad just weeks before the Tokyo Olympics after a serious accusation was leveled against her. She denied wrongdoing.
- national coach Reddin resigns from her position with immediate effect.
- BBC Sport Reveals Ex-Acrobatic Gymnast Eloise Jotischky is the first to win a civil case against British Gymnastics for the abuse she has experienced in the sport, with the organization admitting full liability.