*Updated Oct 2020* Training or abuse? British gymnasts speak out

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*Updated October 2020* – Change to the Law to Prevent Abuse by Sports Coaches

In July this year, I noted the level of abuse in British Gymnastics and the independent inquiry into the allegations made about the coaching industry.

In the days that followed, a Freedom of Information Request made by BBC Sport to all local authorities in England and Wales identified 164 cases of sports coaches engaging in sexual activity with a 16 or 17 year old in their care since 2016.

At present, the Sexual Offences Act makes it illegal for professions such as teachers and doctors to engage in sexual activity with a child, even if over the age of consent (being 16 years), but there are now fresh calls for this to be extended. Victims of the abuse, MPs and the NSPCC have renewed a campaign to prevent anyone within sport holding such a position of responsibility over a child from having a sexual relationship with them.

The Ministry of Justice is carrying out a review of the law and says it will reveal a plan “in due course”.

I believe this must only be the tip of the iceberg – many cases will never be reported for various reasons. We know that teenagers are vulnerable; the most vulnerable may see sport as place of sanctuary. They may be torn between their love and passion for the sport, and the struggle to deal with unwanted attention. Those coaches who are abusing their position by grooming children into believing they are in an acceptable, legitimate relationship, must no longer be able to do so.

It can take years for an individual to understand their experience and speak out, but we must not wait any longer to see change.

*Original story* Following the recent broadcast of Athlete A, a documentary about the abuse of underage gymnasts in the USA, British Gymnastics has announced an independent inquiry into a series of serious allegations about practices in the UK’s own gymnastic coaching industry. Unlike in the USA, there are no reports of sexual abuse, but the allegations do relate to both physical and emotional abuse by coaches and staff, reported by several elite athletes.

Francesca Fox, who competed as a rhythmic gymnast at the Olympics in London 2012 has said she was often told she was “fat” and “looked like a hippo” causing her to weigh herself up to 10 times a day. Another former British Olympian, gymnast Lisa Mason, said she had been made to train until her hands ripped and bled. “My hands would then be pulled down and surgical spirit would be poured all over them,” she added.

The Chief Executive of British Gymnastics has stepped up its response and accepted that the allegations made, as above and by others, show that many individuals felt they could not speak out. She says, “It is clear that gymnasts did not feel they could raise their concerns and it is vital that an independent review helps us better understand why so we can remove any barriers as quickly as possible.”

British Gymnastics says it “condemns any behaviour which is harmful to the wellbeing of our gymnasts. Such behaviours are completely contrary to our standards of safe coaching. Our Positive Coaching Behaviours programme which is mandatory for all coaches sets out clearly why such behaviours are harmful and unacceptable. ”

What can you do if you are being abused?

It’s difficult for any young person being abused by an adult to talk about it, but in this case it was complicated by its proximity to adults training children for competitive sport, making it difficult for those being abused to tell the difference between rigorous training and abusive behaviour.

If you feel that any adult’s behaviour towards you is abusive, for any reason, the most important thing you can do is to tell someone you trust. In situations like this, where an organisation is involved, it might be easier to speak to someone who isn’t connected to the place where the abusive behaviour is happening.

If you can’t talk to someone in person, there are other ways to find help:

  • Write a letter to an adult, or send them an email
  • Shout! is a service that lets you talk to someone by text. Contact them on 85258 to start a chat
  • Childline will let you talk to a counsellor using their website, or on the phone

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Helping people who were abused in childhood

I’ve represented many people affected by abuse. Sports are considered key to a child’s development and a sports club can be great environments in which a child can, and should, flourish.  We place a great deal of trust in those that work and volunteer with children. A club has a responsibility to keep its children safe and make sure that those people working with children also have their safety at heart.  Unfortunately, sometimes this is not the case.

Whilst the acceptance that abuse has and may still be taking place, and the subsequent review is welcome, it does not undo the likely harm caused to these individuals. Given their age, these young people will need significant support to move forward in their sport, and at home, school, or work, to ensure their future is not adversely affected.

If you or someone you know has been affected by physical or mental abuse similar to that discussed in this article, you can contact us for specialist advice.