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The Whyte Review: An Investigation Into Allegations of Mistreatment Within British Gymnastics


Kelly Ofasi

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This blog post was originally published on The Safeguarding Company website >>  https://www.thesafeguardingcompany.com/resources/blog/whyte-review/

THE WHYTE REVIEW: AN INVESTIGATION INTO ALLEGATIONS OF MISTREATMENT WITHIN BRITISH GYMNASTICS

The Whyte Review is an independent investigation by Anne Whyte QC, commissioned by Sport England and UK Sport following allegations of mistreatment of athletes within the sport of gymnastics. The review was released in June 2022 and this blog summarises the main findings and recommendations of the review. 

The full Whyte Review can be read HERE

ORIGINS OF THE REVIEW 

During the summer of 2020, several decorated British gymnasts and former gymnasts made disclosures of alleged abuse within British Gymnastics. These disclosures followed on the heels of the release of the American documentary ‘Athlete A’ which examined sexual abuse within the sport of USA gymnastics and the failure of the sport to address the allegations and protect the athletes.  

The allegations made by British gymnasts included emotional and physical abuse suffered at the hands of the coaches. There was a common theme through the disclosures that the governing body for gymnastics in the UK, British Gymnastics, had failed to prevent or limit this abusive behaviour. It was believed by the gymnasts that British Gymnastics also condoned such behaviours in the pursuit of national and international competitive success, to the detriment of the athletes.  

THE PURPOSE OF THE REVIEW 

The intended outcome of the review was to determine the following: 

  • Whether gymnasts' wellbeing and welfare are at the centre of the culture of British Gymnastics 
  • If the safeguarding concerns and complaints have been dealt with appropriately in the sport of gymnastics  
  • If gymnasts, or their parents, carers or guardians, have felt unable to raise complaints with appropriate authorities  

GYMNASTS' WELLBEING AND WELFARE 

Physical Abuse: Whyte received 400 submissions in response to her call for evidence at the start of her investigation. 40% of submissions described physically abusive behaviour towards gymnasts mainly during training including: 

  • Physical chastisement 
  • Training on injuries 
  • Enforcement of excessive training hours and training loads leading to physical pain and/or exhaustion 
  • Overstretching to the point of distress as a form of flexibility training and management 
  • Withholding food, water and access to the bathroom 

These behaviours were often reported to occur in front of other gymnasts and coaches.  

Emotional Abuse: Over 50% of submissions reported some elements of emotional abuse, again mainly during training sessions. This abuse included: 

  • Inappropriate verbal abuse such as shouting, swearing, name calling and the use of belittling language 
  • Gaslighting* 
  • Controlling behaviour 
  • Suppressing athletes’ options and emotions 
  • Emotional punishment such as young gymnasts being isolated when they were deemed to be underperforming  

Gymnasts reported being humiliated in front of their peers as well as in front of other coaches.  

*Gaslighting is "psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one's emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.” Merriam-Webster.

Female Athletes: Most reports about physical and emotional abuse were disclosed by female gymnasts. The review found that British Gymnastics should have been aware of the scale of emotionally and physically abusive behaviours in the clubs and that issues such as bullying, harassment and excessive control can be quite challenging to recognise and confront.  

Sexual Abuse: Out of 400 submissions only 30 related to allegations of sexual abuse. However, these were serious issues such as: 

  • Grooming 
  • Sexual assault 
  • Sexualised communications 

Whyte determined that there was a better understanding within UK gymnastics of the seriousness of sexual abuse allegations, compared to claims of emotional and physical abuse.  

Athlete Weighing: One form of abuse that came up in 25% of the submissions was excess weight management. Gymnasts and parents were led to believe that it was necessary for the athletes to be weighed several times during the week for the athletes to succeed. British Gymnastics failed to provide guidance to gymnasts, coaches, clubs or parents/caregivers about weighing and excess weight management, but now acknowledges the need to educate coaches and gymnasts better.  

Culture of Gymnastics: The review found that there was a culture of fear within British Gymnastics with many athletes being fearful of speaking their minds and questioning the methods of their coaches. There were also examples of a coach-led culture in which negative coaching techniques were allowed to continue due to the results and success they seemed to bring. There was also an identification that a large percentage of coaches were former gymnasts and the inappropriate coaching behaviour had been learned from when they were athletes and inflicted on the next generation of gymnasts. 

MANAGEMENT OF SAFEGUARDING CONCERNS AND COMPLAINTS 

The Review identified several issues surrounding the British Gymnastics complaint handling process which include: 

  • Inactivity in the management of some complaints 
  • Inadequate investigation of some complaints 
  • Unwarranted delay in the management of some complaints 
  • Poor standards of record keeping and poor levels of communication  
  • Over-reliance on untrained volunteer Club Welfare Officers to investigate complaints  
  • Over-reliance on volunteer Regional Welfare Officers to monitor various outcomes of complaints  
  • Lack of coherent case recording and management systems 
  • Lack of consistency in the management of complaints 

The above issues were compounded by a lack of investment in resources to manage these safeguarding and welfare concerns. This compromised British Gymnastics' ability to manage complaints and has resulted in a loss of confidence in the organisation.  

INABILITY OR RELUCTANCE TO RAISE COMPLAINTS 

There were many reasons athletes did not disclose their concerns including: 

  • Fear of de-selection, demotion and loss of funding  
  • Fear that coaches would react negatively or punish those who made disclosures 
  • A cultural disregard for the athletes and their voices  
  • The coach-led culture made athletes feel like they had no say in the treatment they were experiencing  
  • A lack of confidence in the system that their disclosures would be taken seriously and investigated  
  • The closed training environments  
  • The normalisation of abusive behaviours because the coaches' methods seemingly achieved the desired results 
  • Gymnasts and parents/caregivers assumed that the behaviour was acceptable and necessary to achieve success  

RECOMMENDATIONS  

Whyte has the following recommendations for British Gymnastics  

Safeguarding and Welfare: British Gymnastics must:  

  • Reassess the level of responsibility of their volunteers  
  • Employ staff with appropriate professional expertise and training to support the safeguarding of gymnasts 
  • Revise and update its mandatory safeguarding courses to be more relevant to the sport of gymnastics  
  • Introduce mandatory safeguarding training for all club owners and managers 
  • Revise and improve welfare provision for high-performance gymnasts  
  • Review the types and level of support provided to non-Olympic disciplines   

Complaint Handling: British Gymnastics must: 

  • Ensure its case management system for complaints is fit for the purpose 
  • Provide better guidance in its policies about how to investigate complaints and concerns  
  • Require its clubs to have a complaints policy for safeguarding concerns, operate a system for the neutral reporting of low-level concerns about adult conduct towards children and vulnerable adults and make clear to clubs the circumstances in which they are required to report concerns to British Gymnastics 
  • Ensure that all welfare-related complaints about its employed coaches are independently investigated  
  • Ensure that it notifies complainants and respondents involved in a complaint about actions, developments and outcomes in a consistent and prompt manner 

Stands and Education: British Gymnastics must: 

  • Appoint a Director of Education with overall responsibility for the education and training of coaches and Welfare Officers  
  • Review the policies that affect gymnast welfare and update them to remedy the issues identified in this report 
  • Produce and make available to the gymnastics community a Gymnast Handbook which should be reviewed and updated at least every four years and must include: 
  • British Gymnastics' Standards of Conduct 
  • An explanation of all British Gymnastics’ key policies affecting gymnast welfare and links to these policies 
  • Information about the role of Welfare Officers and obligations to report, and pathways for reporting, safeguarding concerns 
  • Any other information that British Gymnastics considers it is important for the gymnastics community to be aware of, considering the Whyte report 
  • Revise and update its educational programme for coaches and Welfare Officers  
  • Increase its direct contact with registered clubs to promote and monitor compliance with the information set out in the Gymnasts Handbook and provide policy updates 

Governance of Oversight: British Gymnastics must: 

  • Assume responsibility for implementing these recommendations and publish at 6, 12 and 24 months the progress it has made to comply with the report's recommendations, by which time these recommendations should have been implemented 
  • Appoint independent Board members with relevant professional expertise in safeguarding and athlete welfare 
  • Introduce effective governance pathways to ensure that the views and interests of athletes and parents; any patterns and trends in complaints; and British Gymnastics' performance in complaint handling, are known to the Board and are taken into account in relevant decision making 

THE SAFEGUARDING COMPANY'S REACTION 

Martin Baker, CEO of The Safeguarding Company explains, "The Whyte Review clearly illustrates the extensive duty of care that all sports organisations owe to athletes, as well as the comprehensive nature of the support and accountability required for sports coaches and the organisations themselves. Effective safeguarding practice can be complex and challenging and must be built on a culture that prioritises the safety and wellbeing of all participants, and recognises the need to invest in the right policies, systems, training and processes."

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