Exclusive: No checks to abusive gymnastics coaches setting up in one country after being sanctioned in another

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson

Words by ITV News Producer Lucy Towers

Gymnastics coaches sacked from a club, or banned from coaching by a national body, are able to carry on coaching abroad, ITV News can reveal, thanks to a loophole in the international safeguarding system.

No international central database keeps on record the names of coaches who have been investigated and found guilty, suspended or banned at club, national or international level.

Furthermore, ITV News understands that even if a governing body becomes aware that a banned or sacked coach is working in another country, they are unable to pass on information, unless specifically asked by their new employers.

It means coaches are free to repeat the same kind of alleged behaviour from country to country. 

Arlene Hunsdale was sacked from her job at Rathgael Gymnastics Club, in Bangor, Northern Ireland in 2013, after more than 15 parents, gymnasts and coaches made complaints against her.

Most of the gymnasts who experienced the alleged abuse were between the ages of five and 10.

Although the complaints were made seven years ago, our small team spent weeks speaking to some of those involved. 

Many did not want to be interviewed on camera, more than two said it was a time of their life they wished to forget.

One former coach agreed to speak to us anonymously about what she says she witnessed Hunsdale do to children in the gym. 

“She could be really intimidating and really scary,” she told ITV News. 

“There were times where she would run up to them and scream in their face. Children were literally crying their eyes out coming into the gym. You'd better do as you're told, whether you're scared, injured or not. Just do it, you know, and these kids were always getting injured.”

An internal investigation and tribunal found Hunsdale guilty of gross misconduct; documents seen by ITV News include Hunsdale's dismissal letter and British Gymnastics’ acknowledgement of the investigation’s outcome, dated September 2013.

Hunsdale was not banned from coaching by British Gymnastics, and even when a coach is banned their qualifications are not removed. 

Three months later Hunsdale and her family moved to Australia, where she began to teach at Waverley Gymnastics Centre in Melbourne, Victoria. 

There, she won many awards for her coaching including Gymnastics Victoria Coach of the Year 2016 and 2017, until she left for Queensland and a new club in 2018.

ITV News has seen four official written complaints made about Hunsdale to clubs in Australia in the last two years. 

All four were also sent to the gymnastics state and national governing bodies in Australia. 

ITV News has also spoken to more parents who have not complained officially, but told us they had also had bad experiences with Hunsdale.

The complaints about Hunsdale include that she would repeatedly tell one gymnast "that she was not good enough", was "screaming at them in the gym", that her alleged actions caused "physical distress and emotional distress",  that one young gymnast "had panic attacks" and "would cry herself to sleep", and sought "professional help to heal the damage".

At the end of her complaint, one parent wrote that of all the coaches her child had throughout her gymnastics career, they never thought that Hunsdale was "the one that was going to damage her self-esteem more than any other coach". 

One of the complaints ITV news has seen was lodged by Donna-Louise Wilson, whose daughter Jamie attended Waverley Gymnastics Centre. 

'She'd yell at us... every day I'd kind of hope that she just wouldn't be there'

Ms Wilson told us that the alleged bullying got so bad that Jamie, who was 10 years old at the time, “stopped talking, started to get sleeping disturbances, starting wetting the bed. She was basically withdrawing from all of her normal behaviours. She was a different child.” 

Jamie received psychological support after exhibiting what Donna-Louise says was “life threatening behaviour”. 

Ms Wilson and her family had no idea of Hunsdale's past. “It leaves me speechless to know that she's had this history”, she told us from her home in Melbourne.

“There are hundreds of these eight and 10-year-olds in the gymnastics system and the culture is not safe for them.”

Governments and national bodies will often have their own criteria and background checks that need to be carried out before someone can work with children. 

In the UK, for example, coaches, volunteers and club welfare officers over the age of 16, are required to hold a British Gymnastics DBS disclosure which allows an employer to check a criminal record.

It's the responsibility of a club, when hiring a coach, to check their employment record and DBS check. 

Waverley Gymnastics Centre told ITV News that “in addition to a Working With Children check, Police check and all Visa requirements, we completed a reference check with a Director of her previous club on the 4th April, 2013, that is documented and recorded. Gymnastics Ireland also provided a written reference from a staff member that had known Arlene.”

ITV News has since found out that the Director they mention here had actually left the club in 2012, before Hunsdale's suspension and on the 4th April 2013, the date Waverley said a reference was completed, Hunsdale was under investigation in Northern Ireland. 

A person in a position of responsibility at Rathgael Gymnastics Club at that time, has told ITV News that no one was contacted for a reference.

In July, ITV News broke the story of Neil Griffiths' expulsion from British Gymnastics. 

Griffiths coached the acrobatic group “Spelbound” to victory on ITV's Britain’s Got Talent in 2010.

The group went on to perform twice at the London 2012 Olympics, including the closing ceremony.

In a statement at the time British Gymnastics said that Griffiths “has been expelled from membership and is no longer permitted to coach or hold a position of authority in any British Gymnastics regulated activity”.  

Prior to his expulsion, Griffiths had been suspended by BG since 2014 and was later investigated of child cruelty allegations. No further action was taken by police in response to those allegations.

Griffiths has always denied any wrongdoing, but didn't respond to ITV News for comment when we approached him about his expulsion. 

For much of his suspension, Griffiths was still coaching, or in what he called a "supporting role", at a private school in South London and also abroad.  

In one article written in December 2019, he talked about visiting Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, France and Italy.

ITV News contacted the governing body of competitive gymnastics, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and asked what they were doing about coaches suspended or expelled from one governing body being able to coach abroad. 

They told ITV News: "We encourage them, prior to hiring staff from a different country, to make background checks with the national federation the staff member is coming from, the FIG and the state authorities to make sure there are no complaints against this person."

For now “this checking is not mandatory, but the FIG is considering making it an obligation…and is currently developing mechanisms for better sharing of information within the gymnastics community.”

Without more stringent checks, Anne Tiivas, Chair of Safe Sport International, says the sport is at risk of ruining people’s lives.

“If they're able to move freely across borders, without anybody checking on them, we're risking ruining people's entire lives," Ms Tiivas told ITV News.

"There needs to be greater collaboration between sports bodies and statutory child protection agencies...and ensure that those who are in powerful positions are held to account where there are failings.”

Gymnastics Australia acknowledged to ITV News that they received a complaint about Hunsdale, but that there has been no national investigation into her coaching. 

They say that Hunsdale "remains a Technical Member in the Gymnastics Australia database as we have not had a recommendation from any of our affiliated clubs, Gymnastics Victoria or Gymnastics Queensland for her membership to be suspended".

Waverley Gymnastics Centre in Melbourne confirmed that they had received a complaint from Ms Wilson, about Hunsdale. 

"As part of this process we worked closely with the Gymnastics Victoria Child Safe Coordinator," it said.

"On May 17th 2019, Gymnastics Victoria advised us that from this point onwards they would be taking responsibility to resolve the matter (given the coach had left our employment in 2018)."

And Gymnastics Victoria told ITV News that "a complaint was received by Gymnastics Victoria and managed according to our Member Protection Policy."

 Hunsdale denies all the allegations we put to her.

In the last few days since we notified Hunsdale of our plans to publish and broadcast this piece, ITV News has received more than eight emails from parents in support of Hunsdale and her coaching technique.