Revealed: Seven-year-old gymnast forced into painful stretches by coach

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The findings of the Whyte Review have shaken British Gymnastics to its foundations - E+
The findings of the Whyte Review have shaken British Gymnastics to its foundations - E+

In more than 300 pages of devastating analysis, Anne Whyte QC has laid bare the torrid state of British Gymnastics.

She had 400 submissions, implicating more than 100 coaches and nearly 100 clubs. But what did the report say about the abuse that took place?

On physical abuse

An alarming 40 per cent of the submissions included accounts of physical abuse.

That included:

  • “Physical chastisement involving physical contact between the coach and gymnast”

  • Gymnasts being required to train on known injuries

  • Over-stretching as a form of flexibility management

  • Ninety submissions describing the “withholding of food/water/access to the toilet during training” from 30 different clubs

The stories were harrowing, including gymnasts being “physically slapped if they had not stood to attention” and one of a seven-year-old girl being “sat on” by her adult coach to extend a particular stretch.

Whyte wrote: “One former elite gymnast described being made to stand on a beam for two hours because she was frightened to attempt a particular skill.”

There was more than one submission about gymnasts being strapped to the bars for extended periods of time, “sometimes when in great distress”, and others who were “told to climb a rope for needing a lavatory break”.

The report continued: “A parent reported two coaches at once pushing their child’s legs down into a split. One international gymnast explained that their personal coach sat on a gymnast’s lower back, forcing their legs to the floor and then lifting up their knee causing severe pain. I was told that at no stage was the gymnast asked about the process or how it was affecting them. Another gymnast said they didn’t know how their legs didn’t ‘snap’ when being stretched.”

Whyte was also told “on multiple occasions” that gymnasts were pressured to continue training when they had sustained injuries including fractures, dislocations or broken bones, or had developed diseases that were subsequently diagnosed.

One gymnast was deliberately dropped from equipment and dragged across the gym floor by their arms.

On emotional abuse

Half of the submissions referred to emotional abuse, including:

  • Inappropriate verbal communication

  • Gaslighting

  • Emotional punishment

  • Suppressing the athlete’s emotions and opinions

  • Excessively controlling behaviour

“In almost all instances the reported behaviours amounted to bullying under the definition applied by BG,” Whyte wrote.

Gymnasts described struggling with dangerous skills through a mental block, similar to that described by American Olympic gymnast Simone Biles at last year’s Tokyo Games.

But they were met with no sympathy by their coaches: “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’. Their disappointment in the gymnast was palpable and crushing.”

Whyte described gymnasts feeling “belittled and humiliated” in front of others, making them feel “worthless”, even while in the national squad. Comments made to gymnasts included that they were "a waste of space", "a joke" and "pathetic".

On weight shaming

Over 25 per cent of submissions concerned examples of “excessive weight management measures”, including “humiliation tactics as a form of weight control and punishment inflicted for weight gain”.

Whyte said this mostly occurred at high performance clubs by personal coaches, and revealed that “many are still employed as such”.

Weight shaming had been a recurring theme in testimonies from top gymnasts over the past two years, including world bronze medallist Ellie Downie and Olympic medallist Amy Tinkler.

One of the most alarming accounts in the Whyte Review described gymnasts away on competition. “I would hide food in my toiletries bag, wrap cereal bars up in my socks and knickers, and underneath the lining of my suitcase as I was petrified that the coaches would come in and do a search of our luggage for food,” an unnamed gymnast was quoted as saying in the report.

“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. Our time of the months were never accounted for either. Being on my period meant I could add one or two kilograms to the weight on the scale. Immediately I would be shunned for this.”

Gymnasts were also reported as having hidden food above the ceiling tiles of their hotel rooms while away on competition, and described coaches checking hotel rooms “army style” for any hidden away.

Food was “rationed or controlled” for female gymnasts in the elite artistic gymnastics teams, including bedroom bins being searched for wrappers, gymnasts being refused second portions – including of vegetables – and briefly gymnasts being provided with children’s plates to eat from, with sections and ridges to reduce intake of food. In one shocking section, Whyte wrote that gymnasts also reported being told not to eat grapes because they are the “highest-fat fruit” and that their meal should be “the size of the palm of their hand”.

The pressure to conform pushed athletes to disordered eating habits and eating disorders. Reports of gymnasts purging after eating, Whyte wrote, “were not uncommon” and one gymnast described starving herself for two days ahead of a competition to lose three kilograms.

Other accounts described coaches making gymnasts wear ankle weights during training, to represent the weight they had put on. Gymnasts were sometimes weighed more than once a day, in differing types of public view, and were picked out of line ups for “looking fatter”.

“One sport scientist told me that they sometimes saw gymnasts taken off a piece of apparatus, mid-session, and weighed,” Whyte wrote. “If the gymnasts had gained even the slightest weight, they reported that some coaches would effectively say: ‘That’s why you can’t complete your skill.’”

Weights were even “shouted across the gym” and in one case a coach continued to “name and shame” a gymnast for her weight, despite being “aware that the gymnast had an eating disorder”. One coach told gymnasts to ignore advice given to parents by a nutritionist.

Coaches were quoted as saying, "you look like a whale", "you look like you have a beer belly", and "your thighs are disgusting" to gymnasts in their care.

Tellingly, Whyte wrote in her report that several coaches she spoke to refused to discuss weight management.

From 2004, Whyte said, BG’s definition of physical abuse included the inappropriate restriction of a child’s diet, and yet “despite awareness of the pitfalls of excessive weight control” BG’s guidance about weight management was undetailed and until 2020 lacked clarity.

“Whatever the motivation for excessive weight control,” she concluded, “the methodology did not respect the wellbeing of the gymnast and reflected a priority of performance over welfare.”

On sexual abuse

There were 30 submissions of sexual abuse claims, but Whyte concluded that these behaviours were not “systematic” or “condoned” in the sport in the way emotional and physical abuse appear to have been.

Though not the main part of the abuse included in the review, sexual abuse has remained a talking point since British Gymnastics’ abuse scandal first erupted.

In May 2021, a Telegraph Sport report found that British Gymnastics did not strike off a coach until 12 years after he was first reported over sex abuse allegations, and over a year after police recommended his coaching suspension should become permanent.

The examples included in Whyte’s review were also shocking: “The issues raised ranged from reports of grooming and sexual assault to sexual remarks and inappropriate relationships between coaches and gymnasts. Other examples of the behaviours reported were gymnasts being tickled, touched on the bottom unnecessarily during gymnastics moves, threatened with being kissed as a punishment for not following instructions and sexualised comments of a personal nature.”

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