Appalling abuse in British Gymnastics shows urgent need for sports regulator | Sean Ingle
Was it really worth it? That was the first question I asked British Gymnastics’ new chief executive, Sarah Powell, when those stomach‑retching stories in the Whyte review became public. Were those 16 shiny Olympic medals won since 2008 really justified by the human cost – of so many young gymnasts starved, humiliated and abused by a system that ruthlessly put the pursuit of glory over their welfare? “For me it is not about medals and welfare,” she replied. “It can be both and it should be both.”
That has certainly not always been the case at British Gymnastics. We have heard a lot about British sporting exceptionalism since the London 2012 Games. But there is nothing exceptional about girls as young as seven being sat on by coaches to “overstretch” their bodies. Or getting strapped to bars for long periods of time as punishment. Or being forced to train when injured and then punished for crying. It has been part of the playbook of former Soviet states and China for decades. To realise it was common in one of Britain’s golden sports is sickening and damning.
Whyte even uncovered multiple accounts in her £3m review of desperately hungry gymnasts hiding food in socks, knickers or hotel ceilings to escape coaches checking their rooms “army style” – and suffering eating disorders as a result. “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,” she writes at one point. “An ombudsman is an obvious step in the right direction.”
A welcome step yes. But one that does not go far enough. Whyte’s review has convinced me that British sport can no longer police itself. We now need an independent sports regulator, with the teeth and tenacity to force the system finally to change.
The status quo cannot continue – not when we have heard the phrase “culture of fear” in relation to British sport so many times – in gymnastics, cycling, para-swimming, canoeing, rowing, bobsleigh, archery and judo – that it could almost be a shortcut on a journalist’s keyboard. Yet with every scandal there is a review of some kind, and perhaps an apology, but no one carries the can. The system moves on, leaving the broken behind.
And how can it be right that it is usually journalists – Martha Kelner, Matt Lawton, Dan Roan, Steve Scott, George Dobell, Riath Al-Samarrai and Nick Harris spring to mind – who uncover wrongdoing and abuse, not the sports themselves? Shockingly, the Whyte review reckoned that between 2008 and 2020 there were an estimated 3,500 complaints made to British Gymnastics. No one knows for sure as no records were collected for eight years. Yet it was only when brave whistleblowers went to the media that their voices were heard.
The underlying problem, of course, is there is a power imbalance in many sports between administrators and coaches – who decide who gets funding and selected on teams – and the athletes. There is real risk if you break the omerta.
As one whistleblower told me when I wrote about bullying, racism, sexism and financial mismanagement in British Bobsleigh in 2017: “It reminds me of a battered wife or bruised child situation because people are terrified. No one will stand up and say ‘This is out of order’ because we are scared of being sent home, getting our funding cut and not making the Olympics.”
But this problem goes far beyond Olympic sports. Remember what Azeem Rafiq told parliament last year when asked why it had taken more than a decade for the shocking racism, discrimination and bullying he experienced to be made public? “I tried to raise my concerns at Yorkshire County Cricket Club while I was under contract. But nothing was done.”
All this is totally unacceptable . . . but also fixable. We have independent regulators for energy, the media and many other sectors. Why not sport? Imagine a body packed with the sharpest detectives, investigative journalists, lawyers, financial accountants and safeguarding officers, one with investigation and enforcement powers. Such a department could be responsible for protecting athletes and children, integrity issues, financial regulation and even catching sporting cheats – it certainly couldn’t do any worse than UK Anti-Doping on that score.
However, insiders tell me the government is minded against a sports ombudsman or regulator. They say it will cost money and take time to legislate, which is true, although it could surely be funded by a levy on TV-sport rights deals. Some also point to the difficulties of getting Tracey Crouch’s football regulator in her fan‑led review over the line.
I accept some of that. However, I am also told that the government believes that UK Sport and Sport England, which fund elite and grassroot sports, have enough levers to control organisations to which they give money. That will come as news to UK Sport. Any journalist who asks about abuse in Olympic sports tends to get an email that states “we do not have regulatory or investigatory powers regarding internal sporting disputes or the affairs of sports governing bodies”.
While Sport England does have the power to take money from organisations it funds, there are also many governing bodies – especially in martial arts – it has no control over. In truth, it is far too lawless for comfort.
Incidentally I am told that the government is consulting heavily on a new sports strategy which it intends to publish in the coming months. So there is still time to think again about a sport regulator. And if they do not act after the most shameful and damning abuse scandal in British Olympic history, then when?