UK Sport chief Grainger says abusive coaches will be banished from Olympic disciplines

080920 Katherine Grainger PA
Katherine Grainger has spoken out. Credit: PA

Britain’s most decorated female Olympian and now, arguably, the most powerful woman in British sport says she feels let down by some of the governing bodies she hands millions of pounds to and hasn’t ruled out hurting them by withdrawing financial support.

Katherine Grainger, now chair of UK Sport which funds all Team GB’s Olympic athletes, is speaking to me in the wake of the crisis facing British Gymnastics, who were given more than £16 million to prepare for the Tokyo Games.

Grainger has a simple warning for any abusive coach; there is no hiding place and they have no future in British Olympic sport.

“If you are somebody who believes unacceptable behaviour is the way to achieve results you will not be welcome in our system and those are the people we need to make sure leave the system,” she said.

She told me that details of many allegations of abuse that under current guidelines should have been passed on to her organisation were not.

At best, this was the result of a misunderstanding; at worst they were concealed intentionally. 

She said: “My understanding is really quite simple; it says any complaint of any kind involving anyone in the high performance system we need to be made aware of and it's not up to them [the sport] to judge what is a serious concern; it comes to us regardless.”

Grainger also admitted she’s found the catalogue of recent stories from damaged gymnasts difficult to listen to.

“Anyone watching who has ever been involved in sport, who's ever cared about a sport who's ever watched sport, who has ever been a parent of someone in sport, I think every single person would find it difficult," she said.

"I've talked to many people who don't have much of an interest in sport and they find it difficult to hear the stories.

"There have been stories of abuse and unacceptable behaviour that in any environment would be difficult to hear about but it’s important we do hear them, we do need to know.”

Former gymnasts Claire Heafford and Tracey Grant talk about legal action

But nearing an Olympic Games there are many athletes who are reluctant to complain, formally at least, for fear of being deselected and having their dreams dismantled for rocking the boat.

Grainger says this is not how it is designed to be.

She said: “I think that's one of the hardest things to get right and one of the hardest things to hear is athletes who have felt they've had to be quiet because perhaps it’s challenging a selector or a coach or perhaps they're the only voice within their sport who has a problem with the behaviour they're experiencing.

"And they don't always know where to turn to, and what we often see is athletes waiting until they're either finished in their programme or have retired from the sport or not been selected and almost seen as a sort of last resort is finally speak out about it.”

And she is convinced now there is no risk in speaking out and athletes should not suffer in silence.

She said: “I think the most important message now is to say that people are listening, there are many, many places you can go to speak about this.”

The five-times Olympic medallist is talking as more than 20 gymnasts, including four Olympians, are considering joining a group legal action against British Gymnastics.

Katherine Grainger Credit: PA

They believe they’re entitled to compensation for the lasting impact of the abuse they suffered.

But Grainger is also talking on a day when research released by UK Sport reveals that, over the past 12 months, fewer athletes have experienced or witnessed unacceptable behaviour than had during the previous year.

However, only 53% of athletes who took part in UK Sport’s Culture Health Check survey last year believe there are consequences when people behave inappropriately.

Worryingly, that is an increase from 44% in 2018 but lower than the 61% registered in 2017.

UK Sport does hold the power as it can punish governing bodies by cutting budgets, something it has never done.

Grainger believes that strategy could be counter-productive.

“The last thing we need to do is to be seen as a body that because we have ultimate sanctions are withdrawing funding, therefore sports will try and hide things from us and not tell us what is going on because that’s not helpful and can lead to worse consequences.”    

After a succession of inquiries, she is now convinced Olympic sport has finally reached a tipping point where there is no room for a further crisis.

“I can't sit here and say we'll never see this again, but I think we're putting out the message loud and clear that behaviours that are unacceptable, and people who behave in that way are just not welcome, they’re not welcome in sport.”

Everyone agrees with that but there are still many who don’t share her confidence that at last Olympic sport has learnt its lesson and an abuse-free future awaits.