Exclusive: Four Olympians among former gymnasts in talks to launch legal action against British Gymnastics

Four Olympians are among a growing number of athletes on the verge of launching group legal action against British Gymnastics. Upwards of 20 gymnasts are close to putting their names to civil proceedings - and that number is rising daily.

The action could be both embarrassing and costly for the governing body with allegations aired in open court and considerable damages to pay if the action is successful.

The group believes they are all entitled to compensation for various levels of abuse they suffered which has continued to plague them in later life.

They are also convinced court action is the only way to guarantee reform within the sport: they say the joint UK Sport, Sport England review is not independent enough and can be obscured by anonymity. In court there is no hiding place.   

Steve Scott talks to Claire Heafford and Tracey Grant. Credit: ITV News

Claire Heafford and Tracey Grant are just two of the former gymnasts who are making claims. Both women were driven from the sport to new challenges - Claire became a national standard 400m runner, Tracey enjoyed international success as a pole vaulter. However, despite walking away they couldn’t escape the harmful and lasting impact gymnastics had on them. Now they want those responsible for that culture of abuse to make amends for the past and build an abuse-free future.   

Claire says she’s only recently come to terms with the impact gymnastics had on her and others: “I'd spent the last 15 years thinking it was just me, and that it was because there was something inherently wrong with me.

"I'd seen teammates kind of get on with their lives and not speak about what happened to us. And so, I just assumed they were all all right and perhaps I'd imagined it.”

She says the effects are wide ranging: "When you're told that you're deficient on a hourly, weekly basis, that has long term significant mental health effects. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, feelings of low self-worth, low self-confidence, generally feeling that you're never good enough.”

And she believes she is far from being alone: “There is a thin veneer covering the open secret of abusive coaching practices within our sport."

"What I know in my heart to be true is that we’re only just seeing the tip of the iceberg. There is still so much yet to emerge.

"Over the years, as this system of abusive coaching has developed, hundreds of athletes have been left broken by the long-term effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress.”

Tracey too carries scars from the sport. She says even now she thinks twice about what she eats such was the level of body shaming when she was a gymnast.

She believes it’s now time for British Gymnastics to take responsibility for what she went through.

The former gymnasts want British gymnastics to have to stand up and take notice. Credit: ITV News

“The priority is to cause British Gymnastics to have to stand up and take notice. They have been sweeping things under the carpet.

"The shutters are down. They don't want to know, from the individual coaches to the gymnastics clubs, right through to British Gymnastics, we want to force a change.

"An Olympian has come forward, put a complaint in [and it is] brushed under the carpet. And if they can do that to an Olympian, how can a little club athlete speak up?” 

But isn’t the independent review, sponsored by UK Sport and Sport England, designed to expose the truth about what has been and is still happening in gymnastics?

The QC leading this action Nick De Marco says too many inquiries fail to make any lasting difference.

“We've seen so many reviews with good intentions in sport in the past when they've been scandals and in other areas of life. You look at the Hillsborough disaster, for example, that can take years and years to get anywhere and often fizzle out into nothing. 

"And that's why I say by bringing claims in their own names, the athletes, the gymnasts take control of the process. They don't have to rely on somebody else to investigate, but they take control and that’s the difference with the claims we seek to bring.

"And, of course, the proceedings are all in public. They're transparent and the types of inquiries you've had in sport before have been usually behind closed doors and only some of it ever gets out into the public and having these things dealt with in public and transparently makes a huge difference."

In response to the threat of legal action and allegations that complaints were ignored,  British Gymnastics said on Monday: “It is entirely wrong to suggest we have not acted on these claims.

"Within a few days of them first appearing we announced an independent review led by an independent QC to investigate allegations of abuse. 

"Concerns were raised by athletes about our commissioning of the investigation and to remove any doubt of its integrity or independence, we stepped aside and asked that UK Sport and Sport England co-commission it. "That review is now looking at whether gymnast welfare has been at the centre of British Gymnastics' culture.”