In a series of shocking revelations, many former British gymnasts have come out to speak about the ‘culture of fear’ within the ‘mentally and emotionally abusive’ training programmes in gymnastics. These revelations come close on the heels of the broadcast of the US documentary, Athlete A, which details the abuse of gymnasts by USA team doctor Larry Nassar, who committed sexual offenses against many gymnasts who were minors at the time.
The allegations by the former British gymnasts range from athletes being locked up in a store cupboard for refusing to perform a certain skill in training, getting hit by the coach on the leg with wooden sticks, to being sat on for not fully touching the ground while performing splits. Besides the physical torture, athletes spoke about the mental trauma after getting punished for eating ‘junk’ food or for gaining weight above a certain stipulated limit.
The gymnasts included former British champion Catherine Lyons and Commonwealth Games gold medalist Lisa mason, who both accused coaches of bullying and ill treating athletes. Nicole Pavier told BBC Sports that she developed an eating disorder after going through the strict weight control process which involved being weighed every day throughout her career. She disclosed how she developed bulimia at the age of 14 and retired after three year.
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"Being an adult now, you really realise how much it has affected you, from the eating disorders, the chronic pain, waking up having nightmares every night, never feeling good enough," Pavier said. "It has such a long-term implication.”
She complained that her coach Claire Barbieri made sure they were weighed daily, sometimes twice a day, and would discuss everyone’s weights in front of the entire group while displaying it on a whiteboard.
Barbieri, however, retorted that she “never, to date, ever had any formal complaint raised against” her “by a gymnast".
"I acknowledge that the regime for training elite gymnasts can at times be a tough one," she said in a statement. "However, throughout my career I have followed British Gymnastics best practice and I continue to treat the welfare of the gymnasts I coach as my top priority.
"In line with standard practice at the time, the club had a system of weighing and measuring elite gymnasts daily. Following advice from the GB medical team this was reduced to twice a week” she added.
"I am fully aware of the risks of eating disorders amongst gymnasts and ensured that professional advice was obtained and followed where potential issues had been flagged,” she said. “Although a whiteboard was used initially, I acknowledged some gymnasts' concerns with this and changed the practice - introducing a system where the gymnasts had more privacy and kept their own records."
Francesca Fox, a rhythmic gymnast who competed at the London Olympics in 2012, told ITV that she was fat-shamed, addressed as ‘hippo’ and ended up weighing herself 10 times a day as a result.
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“My hands would then be pulled down and surgical spirit would be poured all over them,” she added. “I would also have AstroTurf put under the bars so I would burn my feet if I didn’t keep them up. But everyone else is going through it, so you think it’s normal.”
Most of the gymnasts who suffered under their coaches were minors at the time. The extent of the pressure and victimisation these gymnasts underwent has only been highlighted now. A number of athletes talked about the various psychological issues they are struggling with, including anxiety and depression, and had to receive medication or therapy. There were also some who never managed to recover fully from their trauma.
Gymnasts, along with their parents, were targeted and frequently shouted at for failing to meet the demands of training. A couple of athletes have expressed their horror and have said that they would never want their own children to do gymnastics.
Following the allegations, British Gymnastics ordered an independent investigation to be carried out by Jane Mulcahy QC, who has worked at Court of Arbitration of Sports (CAS). She also handles child protection cases for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
“It is clear that gymnasts did not feel they could raise their concerns and it is vital that an independent review helps us better understand why so we can remove any barriers as quickly as possible,” stated chief executive of British Gymnastics, Jane Allen.
"There is nothing more important for British Gymnastics than the welfare of our gymnasts at every level of our sport and we will continually strive to create a culture where people feel they can raise any concerns that they may have," added Allen.
"The behaviours we have heard about in recent days are completely contrary to our standards of safe coaching and have no place in our sport. The British Gymnastics integrity unit is set up to investigate all allegations when reported or identified by our national network of club and regional welfare officers,” said Allen.
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UK Sport, which funds Olympic sports in Britain, said it would probe these claims. “These allegations relating to the treatment of young athletes within gymnastics are shocking and upsetting," the agency said in a statement. “There is absolutely no place for any sort of bullying or abuse in sport and anyone responsible for such behaviour must be held accountable, with support offered to those affected.”
“We treat safeguarding matters with the utmost importance and all our investments into national governing bodies are contingent on a sport meeting standards set out by the Child Protection in Sport Unit,” read the statement.
“It is essential that all athletes feel comfortable to come forward and share concerns they may have in a safe and confidential environment," the agency added.
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