Olympian Louis Smith condemns 'culture of fear' in British Gymnastics following abuse allegations

Video report by ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott

Former Olympic gymnast Louis Smith has spoken out about a "culture of fear" within British Gymnastics amid a storm of abuse allegations in the sport.

In an Instagram post, the retired artistic gymnast said only "the outright best gymnasts" felt able to speak out about issues at an elite level without repercussions.

The stinging criticism came after ITV News revealed allegations of abuse and bullying by gymnastics coaches at various levels of the sport - including an eight-year-old girl who said coaches screamed in her face during training.

  • Paige Southern-Reason says she has already experienced abuse in the sport she loves:

Following ITV News' reports, British Gymnastics has launched an internal review, but Smith slammed the organisation for being too "scared to taint their image" to deal with complaints.

In two videos entitled "Gymnast alliance", Smith - a multi medal-winning athlete - said some coaches in the sport are "wrong 'uns" adding "change is needed".

"Gymnastics is a very, very hard sport so coaches - especially elite coaches - need to be able to push us to our very best," he said adding: "When you're young, sometimes that approach from a coach blurs the lines between a coach who is a hard but good coach [and] a coach being too pushy, abusive, not understanding."

On the complaints procedure against coaches, Smith said: "The idea of a gymnast asking for help from British Gymnastics is baffling."

The 31-year-old added: "If they had an issue, they wouldn't know who to talk to about it, who to approach [...] to get it heard and resolved - especially with no repercussions coming back on them and affecting their future competitions."

Announcing an independent review at the organisation earlier this week, CEO of British Gymnastics Jane Allen said: "The British Gymnastics Integrity Unit is set up to investigate all allegations when reported or identified by our national network of club and regional Welfare Officers."

Ms Allen conceded, however: "It is clear that gymnasts did not feel they could raise their concerns to British Gymnastics."

The retired gymnast criticised British Gymnastics for not wanting to 'taint their image'. Credit: PA

In the video, Smith called for an "objective" selection process - that he says is in place in other sports and in gymnastics elsewhere around the world - in order to make the complaint procedure effective for athletes.

The current selection procedure relies on "the discretion of the coaches," said Smith.

The silver-medallist said the current "subjective selection criteria" means "you have to be one of the outright best gymnasts if you want to speak up".

He added: "No gymnast knows the way to get an issue like that resolved in a way that does not come back on and affect the gymnast."

  • Gymnasts tells ITV News about a 'culture of fear' within the sport

A "culture of fear" within elite gymnastics is something Jay Thompson - who is taking a break from the sport because of depression - has also experienced.

The former Junior and European British champion told ITV News he competed through one competition with a potential stress fracture in each leg.

"I had chronic shin pain [...] and they wouldn't scan me before the competition because they needed me.

"I competed in a lot of pain, to the point where I was crying."

By just speaking out about his experience, the young gymnast fears repercussions: "If I'm honest this will probably have a big impact on my career, potentially, career ending just speaking about it."

  • Athlete Georgia Pickles recalls a similar experience in her gymnastics training

Former gymnast Georgia Pickles also recounts being made to carry on whilst in pain.

She told ITV News: "I did a spin on the low beam and I fractured my foot.

"I remember crying and crying.

"They clearly didn't believe me because they said 'if your foot hurt that much then you can stop but the alternative is climbing the rope'".

Georgia explains "the rope" was "16 ft high, tied to the ceiling".

As a national standard competitor in both gymnastics and pole vault, she says the culture is not the norm in professional sport.

"In gymnastics the contrast is, it's not athlete first, it's which coaches can take gymnasts to the Olympics and it suddenly starts becoming less about the athletes and more about the coaches."