A group of 17 former gymnasts, including three Olympians, have begun legal action against the sport’s governing body British Gymnastics, claiming abuse by coaches immersed in a "winning at all costs" culture that has left many of them with lasting psychological and physical damage.
The gymnasts are all women and at the time of the alleged abuse were aged between six and 23.
As first reported by ITV News in September the allegations range from physical abuse and pressure to train on injuries to body-shaming leading to eating disorders, bullying and unnecessary punishments.
The specific claims are laid out in a 26 page letter from the group’s lawyers. The catalogue of alleged abuse inside British Gymnastics’ affiliated gyms includes:
Coaches punching and kicking gymnasts who failed to execute certain skills
Children forced to take strong medication to train through pain
Gymnasts being forced to train wearing weights as punishment
Gymnasts being forced to wear a “fat-suit” if they gained weight
Children ordered to follow nutritionally and calorie deficient diets
Some of the claimants also say they felt powerless to complain about their treatment because many of the coaches and other British Gymnastics staff, including welfare officers, had close personal relationships. Relationships the letter says that: ‘perpetuated a closed circuit of authority.’
Olympian Jem Pinches who founded the #gymnastalliance movement and is part of the legal action said: “For too long we have seen British Gymnastics prioritise podiums over people which has led to untold damage to the lives of young people. It is a heart-breaking truth to face, knowing the level of abuse that we and so many others were subjected to.”
Double Olympian Hannah Whelan welcomes the legal action against the governing body “It is vital that we get recognition of the shortcomings of British Gymnastics and support for the people who have been affected in order to come together to create the change needed.”
And another claimant, former elite gymnast Claire Heafford added: “This is a landmark moment in our campaign for justice. This is not and has never been about a few bad apples, this is about decades of systemic abuse, encouraged and covered up by those at the top.”
Allegations about widespread abuse in the sport, first revealed by ITV News, have prompted two separate QC led investigations and the suspension of several coaches. An NSPCC led helpline has attracted hundreds of calls and the organisation has provided therapy courses for dozens of athletes and their families.
One ongoing investigation into the conduct of Team GB’s most senior women’s coach, Amanda Reddin has also attracted criticism from the gymnasts’ lawyers.
They say “some of the claimants who have engaged with the ‘Reddin Review’ have raised concerns about the way in which it has been conducted, including the fact that gymnasts were precluded from accessing legal representation during the interviews undertaken.”
Reddin, who was due to lead GB’s women’s team to the Olympic Games this year has temporarily stood aside from her role.
British Gymnastics have released a brief statement: ”We took receipt of the Letter Before Action yesterday afternoon. It would not be appropriate or fair to all parties for us to make any comment until we have had the opportunity for it to be fully considered."