Geoff Berkeley

"We’ve finally been heard" was the reaction of two-time Olympian Becky Downie on social media following the long-awaited release of a report that uncovers the abusive culture that had become entrenched within British Gymnastics.

Downie, a double European champion who represented Britain at the Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016 Olympics, said she and her fellow gymnasts felt vindicated after saying they had "known for so long of the serious cultural problems within the sport."

"Finally, everyone knows the truth and while it won’t directly benefit those who have experienced it, it’s encouraging to know that if the recommendations are implemented, it’ll protect and enhance the next generation of gymnasts," Downie posted on Twitter.

The 30-year-old and her younger sister Ellie were among a number of gymnasts that publicly spoke out against the alleged abuse they had endured within the British team.

Speaking in 2020, the siblings alleged that the "cruel behaviour" was "so ingrained in our daily lives that it became completely normalised", adding that there was "an environment of fear and mental abuse".

Becky said she had often trained to the "point of physical breakdown", saying that coaches called her "mentally weak" and told her that pain levels she was experiencing were in her head, while Ellie alleged that she was made to feel "ashamed" about her weight.

Although they admitted that the culture in British Gymnastics had got better in recent years, it has become clear by the Whyte Review that the allegations made by the Downie sisters scratched the surface of the horrendous and sickening things that had been going on within the sport.

The independent review, which took almost two years to complete and cost UK Sport and Sport England £3 million ($3.6 million/€3.5 million), collected more than 400 submissions with half of those reporting emotional abuse and more than 40 per cent alleging physical abuse.

Allegations of sexual abuse were also reported in 30 submissions including "grooming", "sexual assault" and "sexualised communications".

At 306 pages, the Whyte Review details the disgusting mistreatment of gymnasts with accounts that leave you sick to the stomach and furious.

Barrister Anne Whyte, who led the report, also explained the "tyranny of the scales" as she calls it where there was excessive weighing of gymnasts, resulting in eating disorders and athletes resorting to strategies to hide food, including in ceiling tiles and under beds in their rooms.

"I was told that some coaches went to damaging lengths to control what gymnasts ate and weighed, to the extent of searching luggage and rooms for food," said Whyte.

The review also received a high volume of submissions about inappropriate language from coaches who referred to gymnasts as "retard", "stupid" or "chicken" and barked out orders in their faces.

"If a gymnast was struggling with a skill, often a mental block over a dangerous move, they would be left on the equipment to work through that skill, crying, bleeding, exhausted or even injured, until they either did it, or were shouted at so much that they broke down, or the coach became so frustrated and enraged that they called the gymnast off the apparatus and told them to 'sit out of sight' in the changing rooms or 'go home'," one account in the report read.

One former elite gymnast recalled being made to stand on the balance beam for two hours because she was frightened to attempt a particular skill, while another submission recounted how gymnasts were strapped to the bars for extended periods of time.

One former elite gymnast said she was made to stand on the balance beam for two hours ©Getty Images
One former elite gymnast said she was made to stand on the balance beam for two hours ©Getty Images

Other reports included overstretching to the point of tears and injury as a form of flexibility management and withholding food, water and access to the toilet during training sessions.

Several gymnasts described situations where a coach would use the force of their own weight to extend a particular stretch, with one individual alleging that a trainer sat on her when she was seven years old.

It is truly shocking and there are many more horrible stories.

The airing of the Netflix documentary, called Athlete A, in June 2020 that examined the Larry Nassar scandal and safeguarding shortcomings in American gymnastics was cited by Whyte as a result of disclosures of gymnasts’ experiences.

The disgraced former USA Gymnastics doctor was accused by hundreds of athletes of committing abuse and is serving up to 175 years in prison for his crimes committed under the guise of medical treatment.

There have since been reports of abuse in the sport in countries through the world including Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany and Canada.

Just two months ago, more than 300 gymnasts called for an independent investigation into a "toxic culture and abusive practices" at Gymnastics Canada.

The revelations in the Whyte Review come only a few weeks after the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) published its new Code of Conduct, which outlined standards of behaviour expected from all participants in the sport.

FIG agreed to develop the Code in October 2020 following several high-profile abuse scandals in gymnastics.

The Larry Nassar scandal has led to many gymnasts speaking out about experiences of abuse ©Getty Images
The Larry Nassar scandal has led to many gymnasts speaking out about experiences of abuse ©Getty Images

A total of 14 general principles of integrity and respect have been outlined in the Code as well as specific standards for athletes, coaches, judges and officials, and executive officers.

Among the general principles include participants being required to "strictly refrain from any behaviour that could constitute, encourage or incite any form of harassment, violence, abuse or otherwise cause harm", including "physical, sexual and psychological misconduct".

They must also "proactively address abusive, bullying, manipulative or threatening language or behaviour and report any concerns of abuse or neglect of a participant to the appropriate authorities promptly", and "refrain from any abuse or misuse of your position of trust, power or influence."

Coaches have also been urged to avoid "any inappropriate, insensitive, hurtful, mocking or critical comments or behaviour regarding the athlete’s physical appearance, body shape or weight".

Infringements of the Code of Conduct are to be handled by the disciplinary authorities of FIG’s Gymnastics Ethics Foundation.

"We cannot change years of bad practice in the sport overnight," said FIG President Morinari Watanabe.

"While in some parts of the world, new generations of practitioners, coaches and executives developed approaches based on respect and wellbeing, abusive training methods still prevail in some places, with the strong conviction that it is part of the path to success.

FIG President Morinari Watanabe admitted the organisation could not change "years of bad practice in the sport overnight" ©Getty Images
FIG President Morinari Watanabe admitted the organisation could not change "years of bad practice in the sport overnight" ©Getty Images

"That cannot prevent us as the governing body from setting up standards applicable everywhere, and by so doing, reminding everyone that they have rights, duties and responsibilities."

Whyte has outlined 17 recommendations for British Gymnastics to implement and feature four key areas that require "changes in order to shift the focus of the sport to gymnast welfare and wellbeing".

They include "safeguarding and welfare", "complaints handling", "standards and education", and "governance and education".

Whyte also believes the creation of a sport’s ombudsman would be "an obvious step in the right direction" - a move that has long been suggested and should be implemented to oversee compliance concerns.

"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," said Whyte.

British Gymnastics chief executive Sarah Powell issued an apology following the Whyte Review and stressed that the body was fully committed to "deliver the reform needed".

"We will build a new culture and ensure the gymnasts voice is at the heart of all we do," said Powell, who has been at the organisation since October 2021.

"We will change gymnastics for the better."

British Gymnastics and other bodies must avoid further shocking cases, like those detailed in the Whyte Review, as this damning report needs to be seen as a watershed moment for the safeguarding of athletes in the sport.

The full Whyte Review can be read here.