By Sports Producer Dan Salisbury-Jones
It often surprises casual observers of the Olympics, enjoying the impossible feats of Simone Biles and Max Whitlock, that gymnastics has never been a Paralympic sport. As athletics, swimming and cycling adapted to embrace elite disabled athletes, gymnastics failed to create a Paralympic programme. You are unlikely to have heard of Britain’s most successful disabled gymnasts while Jonnie Peacock, Ellie Simmonds and Sarah Storey are household names. Now elite British disabled gymnasts say they feel side-lined by their sport with no prospect of meaningful international competition.
Oli Kettleborough, won three gold medals at the British Championships earlier this month, taking his haul of titles to 22. But he has never competed in a World Championships because there isn’t one. He told ITV News: “We are pushed to the side, as though we’re recreational athletes, we’re not treated like we’re elite. “I train alongside mainstream elite athletes and they deserve everything they get, they work incredibly hard. So I don’t view it negatively but the thing is, I don’t quite understand why we don’t get treated the same.”
Stacie Ridley, once Britain’s most successful disability gymnast, said: “Which kid comes into gymnastics just to do cartwheels? Everyone wants to go to competitions, everyone wants to go to the Olympics and these disability gymnasts don’t have that opportunity so to me that’s not fully inclusive. “In order to move forward they need to look at the inequalities about what the mainstream athletes have access to and what the disability gymnasts have access to. I think by closing that gap then you can call yourself an inclusive national governing body.”
Oli Kettleborough, a British champion, says disabled gymnasts get "pushed to the side"
Britain is widely regarded as the leading nation for inclusivity, which perhaps suggests the other federations need to urgently reflect. Ridley was part of the national squad, which had very little competition and was disbanded in 2013, she says that decision hurt a number of her colleagues. “I thought it was pretty heartless to be honest. They were obviously disappointed and disheartened,” she said. “They talked about putting the money into grassroots programmes and that was seen with the ‘I’m In’ campaign that tried to get more disability gymnasts involved in recreational level. It was explained to us that was the plan, we need more people coming through from the grassroots levels to get up to the high levels and make it even more competitive and even more successful with more people involved.
"We understand that but what do we do now? With people who are already up there and the people who have worked to get to that point who now don’t have anything to do to. “I know a lot of gymnasts retired at that point and not even at their peak, obviously with nothing left to aim for. They were already at the British Championships, already winning gold medals but it’s not going to lead to anything else, there’s no higher level to work towards.”
Stacie Ridley, once Britain’s most successful disability gymnast, says funding was given to grassroots programmes but that does not help the gymnasts who are already at the top
British Gymnastics introduced the Disability Masters competition that put the best disabled athletes on the same stage as Louis Smith and Beth Tweddle at the mainstream British Championships. It was an incredible opportunity for visibility that British Gymnastics were rightly congratulated for. But then, and you can see a pattern emerging, for the athletes it wasn’t quite what it seemed. “Originally we competed up on stage with the mainstream athletes, gradually as time went on we were pushed more to the side and finally they decided to call it off and I just felt as though all of us elite disability gymnasts were being pushed to the side,” Oli recalls.
The gymnasts were told there was no room for them at the championships in 2019. A public outcry led to it being reinstated and it is scheduled to be part of next year’s event. Oli was relieved by that decision but is now concerned by rumours they will compete on the day with fewest crowds. “You can get as many recreational gymnasts as you like into the grassroots but if they don’t have anyone to look up to or anyone to aim to be as good at or aim to be or compete against, there’s no drive for them to stay. “If you’re not supporting athletes who do want to go through the programme, they’re also not going to want to stay.
"So you’ve got people not wanting to stay in the recreational side as they’ve got no one to try and beat and at the elite side, there’s no point to being there, they’ve got no support. So you’ve got people dropping out left, right and centre.”
ITV News approached the world governing body FIG for comment but have yet to receive a response.
A spokesperson for British Gymnastics said: “Disability gymnastics has been embedded in our sport in the UK since 1985 and British Gymnastics has led the way in championing opportunities for disabled gymnasts with initiatives such as the “I’m In” programme supporting our club community to become more inclusive.
"We absolutely support the international development of disability gymnastics and have, alongside the FIG, provided education to several federations looking to improve and increase their provision in this area.
"As part of our commitment to continued learning and development in this area last year we announced the formation of the British Gymnastics Disability Gymnastics Panel with the aim to provide more opportunities for disabled participants, with the group looking to influence, shape and drive inclusive opportunities in gymnastics and make recommendation on how we can improve competitive pathways and events.
"This panel will return an action plan for disability gymnastics that will help drive further opportunities at all levels of the sport including recommendations on how we best develop elite performance programmes and competitions going forward.”That British Gymnastics Panel will likely lead to improvements for disabled gymnasts but Britain cannot do it alone.
Gymnastics has already missed the boom in para-sport and there will no doubt need to be a major concerted international effort for it finally catch up.