By Sarah Bates
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2810

Report found a ‘culture of fear’ in gymnastics

A new report has found that abuse of young people is endemic in gymnastics where reports of physical threat and mental torment are common.
Issue 2810
gymnastics sport

Coaches abuse was ignored

Countless young people have suffered at the hands of abusive gymnastics coaches, a damning new report has found. The Whyte Review, released on Thursday, looked at sports governing body British Gymnastics (BG) during the period 2008-2020.

Over 400 people submitted evidence to QC Anne Whyte, who led the investigation. She writes that over 40 ­percent described physically abusive behaviour during training—a horror that some gymnasts will carry with them for a lifetime.

They reported that coaches would inflict physical ­punishment if they were late for training, were injured or put on weight. Some reported gymnasts being strapped to bars for extended periods, “sometimes in great distress”.

One elite gymnast said they were forced to stand on the beam for two hours because they were, ­“frightened to attempt a particular skill”. And over 50 percent of ­respondents reported emotional abuse, including, “shouting, ­swearing, name calling and use of belittling language.”

“Gymnasts reported ­feeling humiliated in front of others and as if they could not express their feelings or make choices about their gymnastics, and, at times, their life outside of ­gymnastics,” writes Whyte.

One gymnast said, “The coach would shout and scream in our faces so close that I could smell (their) breath and feel (their) spit landing on my face.”

Whyte details a “culture of fear” operating in the sport, where gymnasts are too afraid to question or report coaches. Often, the gymnast’s fear was borne of the power imbalance in the relationship between talented gymnasts and successful coaches. This had taken root early in the relationship.

“It was easily ­maintained because some coaches ­continued to treat adolescents and young adults, especially females, like children and failed to involve them (and their parents) sufficiently in decision making and in discussion.”

It details particularly intense relationships where gymnasts were, “in some cases spending more time with the coach than with parents”.

For many, it was a ­relationship with fear at the centre of it. And around a quarter of people mentioned coaches’ obsession with their weights to be distressing.

Some report being weighed every single day, and Whyte describes a “tyranny of the scales”. One describes, “I would not eat the night before to ensure I was lighter on the scale the next morning. “I would take laxatives to ensure I could poo prior to weigh-ins, or I would limit my consumption of water to ensure I was not counting much water weight.”

The revelations are ­horrifying. They show that wider societal pressure to be thin or have the right body shape is magnified in the sporting world. And the abuse at every level within the sport was at ­epidemic levels.

The report argues that ­vulnerable young people were “infantilised by determined and dominant coaches. This process has deprived too many gymnasts of the essential decision-making skills that they need to prepare them for life beyond the gym or podium.”

BG has 300,000 to 400,000 members—75 percent of them children and young people.

Despite this, the Whyte Review details how BG operated ­“safeguarding on the cheap”, ­relying on individual clubs to draft safety documents and volunteers to monitor welfare.

This all reveals a much broader issue of how elite sport treats people. In order to compete, coaches and managers push ­people’s bodies to the brink. Their physical and mental health is often impacted.

And because so-called ­“perfection” is expected in sports like ­gymnastics, abuse often follows. Under capitalism sport is distorted by the wider ideology of competition. Children and young people are among those who pay the price.

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