Sebastian Coe urges British Gymnastics to act on abuse complaints reported by ITV News investigations

  • Video report by ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott

Sebastian Coe sat down recently to watch a series of ITV News reports on allegations of abuse in gymnastics and was immediately moved by the personal stories from athletes who have been badly damaged by their sport.

“You are automatically very worried when you hear those types of stories. They need to be investigated. It’s non-negotiable,” he told me. 

And he should know, not only does he head up World Athletics, and was one of the key architects of London 2012, but he was a world beating athlete in his own right.

“I know what good coaching is, I was the product of world class sensitive coaching, tough coaching but within the boundaries of good coaching. Anything that goes beyond that needs to be investigated and, frankly, you need to hit it hard.”

He does not subscribe to there being a grey area in coaching where what is tough coaching to some is abuse to others.

“I think there is a line; I’m not sure there is a grey area.

"I’ve had factory floor conversations and I’m glad for them. Bullying and mindless abuse is not a grey area. It’s bad coaching and it should be stamped out.”

Coe says there will always be difficult conversations between an athlete and a coach but they should be a positive experience.

“You are always sitting discussing with coaches how you can be better this time tomorrow than you are today, and in six months’ time better than you were six months earlier.

"These are really important concepts, and coaches have to give really unvarnished, sometimes quite brutal observations, but there's a massive difference between that and mindless abuse or bullying or worse than that, you know, regimes that are going to cause physical and mental damage to competitors, no good coach would go within a million miles of that.”

So, what of gymnastics and its current crisis? One common irritation among athletes has been that despite all the harrowing evidence presented over the past three months, British Gymnastics, and in particular the governing body’s chief executive Jane Allen, has not apologised for what has been going on its sport.

I asked Coe why he thought that was so difficult to do.  

“I’m not sure it is that hard not to say sorry and I think on occasions you have to hold your hands up and say 'maybe under these circumstances we could and should’ve done more and if it means sorry, we didn’t do enough earlier but we are going to address this issue', that might make a difference.”

While UK Sport which funds all Olympic programmes has eased back from the ‘money for medals’ mantra, where individual sports were rewarded financially for their successes, there is still a belief that win-at-all-costs doctrine served to create unhealthy and damaging environments for athletes.

So, have we become too obsessed with success? Coe believes striving for excellence is still the only path to take because of the wider impact that excellence can have on British society.

“I’ve been in too many schools with too many Olympians and Paralympians who’ve returned from major champs, when they take out the medal and the impact in that school, often in a hard pressed area, to see those children look at that person and say 'they came through my school, they focused for 10 years and they made something out of those circumstances'.”

But what if striving for that medal comes at the cost of an athlete’s physical or mental health?

Amy Tinkler filed a complaint about her experience to British Gymnastics. Credit: PA

“One is too many, but we also have to recognise there are legions of coaches, doing a more effective job than any social worker in any community, and some of them are working at grassroots levels.”

Another common theme that has emerged is that British Gymnastics is not trusted to investigate its own issues - it has admitted as much itself.

Coe says in the sport he runs, athletics, its integrity unit is a place where his athletes can go in the belief their complaints will be dealt with fairly.

Gymnastics, he said, may need a shake-up.

“If a sport does have an integrity unit and the athletes still don’t feel they have the protection or they don’t feel comfortable with going to it, then you need to look at the unit itself.” 

Watch the full interview with Seb Coe:

Failing that Coe says an ombudsman may be necessary but his instinct is that sports can and should police themselves effectively, that includes everything from complaints to culture.

Finally, can the sport move on while abusive coaches are still scattered around Britain’s gyms?

Coe’s advice to British Gymnastics is to learn from the past, to be transparent, get everything out in the open and kick out any coach found guilty of abuse.

“This is non-negotiable. By getting rid of bad coaches you are actually protecting the professional status of the rest of the coaching fraternity, which comes into sport for all the right reasons and is often underpaid and not properly understood in terms of what they produce and you need to protect them at all costs."