It’s 1976, I’m ten years old and I’m sat on the sofa with my mam and nanna watching the Montreal Olympic Games. Nadia Comaneci, my absolute hero at the time, becomes the first gymnast in Olympic history to be awarded the perfect score of 10.0 for her performance on the uneven bars. It takes a moment to register as the scoreboard doesn’t know what to do: it wasn’t able to display the four digits needed to show a row of 10.00s, nobody had even conceived that this level of perfection was possible. We roar, it is a moment of absolute joy. I am in awe of Nadia’s skill, her beauty, her achievement, and I immediately want to become a gymnast.
My mother brings me down to earth and tells me what it takes to be an athlete like Nadia. She tells me of the starvation diets, the beatings, the humiliation and the cruelty. Tiny children taken from their families and from sunrise to nightfall forced to practise endlessly. “That’s why they are so good” she says and “it’s why Great Britain doesn’t win medals, we don’t do that”. “Who does it then?” I ask. The USSR and China – communist countries it transpires, but certainly not GB or the Americans. She also tells me it’s now far too late and I should have started aged four or five and my body is already wrong for gymnastics. How could I have known, I wondered?
My love for Nadia surges. I follow her story and just as my mam said, the whole horrendous tale comes out. Widespread abuse of children, afraid to drink water or even breath air as coaches tell them of the calories in both that will make them too fat to win medals. I finally decide being a world class elite athlete isn’t for me and I am distracted by other matters – punk rock, clothes, lying around reading for days on end. Either being perfectly still or pogoing frenetically up and down. I lack discipline and routine. I am not an athlete in either mind or body.
The Whyte Review
The memory of Nadia’s perfect ten and my childhood dream resurged last week. I’ve been reading the Whyte Review, an independent report commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England which sets out to examine disclosures of abuse of children in British gymnastics.
Story after story of children abused whilst participating in sports has surfaced since the 1970s. Sexual abuse by football and swimming coaches hit the headlines in the 1980s and 1990s, and now gymnastics and the whole shameful toxic culture has been revealed though the Whyte Review. A culture that prioritised profit and the glory of medals over safeguarding. Young gymnasts, children, subjected to shocking levels of physical and mental abuse. Humiliated, belittled, bodies shamed, girls (and it is predominantly girls) told they are too fat, too ugly, not good enough. The shame and trauma will endure for many, childhoods ruined.
The evidence is compelling and robust, a call for evidence in 2020 received over 400 submissions. Over 40% of the submissions received described physically abusive behaviour towards gymnasts, mostly during training sessions. The correlations are strongly associated to the tactics and techniques of abuse my mam described in 1976 i.e. the withholding of food, water and access to the toilet during training sessions along with excessive weight monitoring. Actual physical punishments and abuse were common, with children being sat on, pulled and stretched. One child described how they thought their leg would snap. It is deeply disturbing to read and sadly all too familiar.
What the children said
The terms of reference included an exploration of why children and parents had found it so difficult to make disclosures of abuse when safeguarding polices were in place. The response to this was clear: fear of de-selection or demotion was cited as a key reason for not disclosing. One child said:
“I feared if I spoke out or stood up to said bully/coach I could be jeopardising my chances of making it to the Olympics.”
“We have always been made to feel like if we speak up we will get removed from the team or even worse.”
“The culture has been one where coaches and gymnasts are expected to put up and shut up and never question the management for fear of not being selected for teams.”
Fear exposed in the Whyte Review
Safeguarding policy was rendered ineffective to the point of uselessness by the culture of fear – fear of telling, fear of being judged, fear that funding would be removed, and fear that a career would be ended. Anne Whyte QC is transparent in her view that Britain’s pursuit of Olympic glory and the linking of a gymnast’s medal potential with funding, may have obscured a focus on safeguarding. Campaign group Gymnasts for Change is even clearer in saying that, “Ultimately, medals were prioritised over athlete welfare”.
So what’s next? What will it take to ensure children are safe in sport? Or as Whyte puts it, “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”.
Whyte calls for an independent sports ombudsman, but is this enough? The response from British Gymnastics makes the right nods but we have heard the comments all before in different yet strangely similar reviews.
“Watershed moment”, tick
“Deeply sorry”, tick.
Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility
Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. Putting children in a position where winning is seen to be valued above all else fosters environments in which abuse flourishes. Sponsors, funders and the government must step up and look beyond profit and the national pride that is often based on a temporary boost in the immediate aftermath of an event. Investment is needed in genuine longer-term programmes with metrics that extend beyond medals.
Sport is good for us, we know that. It has the potential to build confidence, self-esteem, develop skills, and keep us healthy. We can’t however all be elite athletes, but does that make us any less valuable or should playing sport have less meaning in our lives? Sport should be for us all and we should all be safe to participate free from ridicule, punishment or abuse. The dark side of sport can only be tackled if we shift emphasis from profit to people, from winning to welfare. It’s that simple really.
I feel hope in the form of athletes such as Marcus Rashford and Hannah Mills who have used sport as a platform to tackle society’s big issues like inequality, poverty and the climate crisis. I look towards Emma Raducanu, who takes enjoyment in all sport whilst being clear she’s letting go of being perfect.
I still want to do cartwheels just for the sheer joy of the freedom that movement brings. I want every child to have that option open to them, fear from judgement, free from harm.