Whyte Review blames 'coach-led culture of fear' for British Gymnastics abuse failings

ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott gives an overview of the report's findings

A coach-led culture of fear within British Gymnastics that put glory above athletes' well-being led to gymnasts being subjected to physical and emotional abuse, a new review has found.

The Whyte Review, commissioned after an ITV News investigation into abuse in British Gymnastics, laid bare the extent of the mistreatment at both elite and amateur levels in the sport.

Of the 400 submissions, more than 40% reported physically abusive behaviour, primarily during training.

This behaviour included physical chastisement, inappropriate training on an injury, the enforcement of excessive training hours, training loads leading to physical pain and exhaustion beyond acceptable limits as well as over-stretching to the point of distress as a form of flexibility management.

It also reported gymnasts were denied food, water and toilet breaks during training sessions.

More than 50% of respondents reported an element of emotional abuse, such as shouting, swearing, name-calling and the use of belittling language. Gymnasts also reported being subject to gaslighting, excessively controlling behaviour and suppressing athletes’ opinions and emotions.

Athletes reported instances of being made to wear a dunce’s cap and being called a “cry-baby” in front of their peers. One parent described how a complaint about their child being called a “f****t” on a daily basis was “shrugged off as a joke” by the club’s welfare officer.

Founder of the #GymnastAlliance and Gymnasts4Change, Jennifer McIlveen (née Pinches) tells ITV News she wants to see "meaningful change"

ITV News led the way in exposing a catalogue of allegations of physical and mental abuse and bullying across British Gymnastics.

The review was commissioned following allegations first reported by ITV News in 2020.

The Whyte Review, jointly commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England and chaired by Anne Whyte QC, was critical of British Gymnastics' "insular" culture that failed to "recognise the fundamental importance of gymnasts, including elite gymnasts, to the popularity and commercial success of the sport".

The 306-page report also concluded that the management of safeguarding concerns and complaints by British Gymnastics and its clubs had not been consistently appropriate or rigorous.

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“One former elite gymnast described being made to stand on the beam for two hours because she was frightened to attempt a particular skill,” wrote Whyte.

In another case, “one international gymnast explained that their personal coach sat on a gymnast’s lower back, forcing their hips into the floor and then lifting up their knee causing severe pain, or used body weight to push the gymnast down into splits”.

More than 25% of submissions were about excessive weight management. Whyte accused the governing body of facilitating a “quite unnecessary” obsession with weight and body shape, which caused a number of respondents to suffer from eating disorders and mental health issues.

There were 30 submissions of sexual abuse.

Founder of the #GymnastAlliance and Gymnasts4Change, Jennifer McIlveen (née Pinches) welcomed the report, but said she wants to see "meaningful change now".

"In the actions that we have called for a long time, has been a meaningful apology. So obviously it is great to hear that," she told ITV News.

"It's too little too late for the hundreds of gymnasts that have had their testimonies told in this review and told their testimonies to us. But hopefully, this can draw the line under the past and be a moment of change moving forward so that this never happens again."

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In a joint statement, the CEOs of the commissioning bodies, Sport England’s Tim Hollingsworth and UK Sport’s Sally Munday said:  “We welcome today’s report and accept and endorse all of its recommendations.  

“The gymnasts’ experiences shared in this Review are harrowing and distressing to read. No one in sport should ever be subjected to such abuse.

"We want to publicly acknowledge and thank all of those who were courageous in coming forward.

"Your voices are heard. You have played a vital part in fundamentally shaping the future of gymnastics in Britain, to help make it safe and inclusive for future generations to come. "  

They said the bodies would continue to fund British Gymnastics as to stop it would prevent it from implementing key changes and negatively impact the support and wellbeing of gymnasts.

But it said continued funding would depend on British Gymnastics' new leadership team "making significant changes to the sport, to the timelines set out in the report’s recommendations".  

Following ITV News' initial reports two years ago, growing allegations led to the respective departures from the governing body of chief executive Jane Allen in October 2020, and women’s head coach Amanda Reddin – a key architect of Britain’s seven-medal haul at the 2016 Rio Olympics – in May.

Ms Allen said she was “deeply sorry” she did not provide more support for the gymnasts.

"Like so many, I welcome the publication of this final report and its recommendations, knowing necessary changes will continue to come.

“It’s been very hard to hear the painful experiences shared by people in a sport that I’ve led and been dedicated to for so many years.

“I’m deeply sorry I didn’t do more for everyone – especially the athletes – to feel supported, able to speak up and heard. There’s nothing more vital. This was under my leadership and it should have been different.

“I also recognise the role the media has played in giving those athletes the voice they sometimes felt denied and holding authority to account. This review will drive further positive change for everyone who is, or wants to be, involved in sport and ensure the best environment for them to experience all the good things it can offer.”

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Whyte accused Allen of a “lack of leadership” and an “organisational failure… to appreciate the central importance of athlete welfare”.

Ms Reddin, who left the organisation by “mutual agreement”, was facing an independent investigation into her training methods. She was cleared of some charges and continues to strenuously deny any wrongdoing.

The review also criticised UK Sport for presiding over a culture in which it’s own ‘Mission Process’ was “window dressing for those sports, like gymnastics, where medals were realistically anticipated and that the medals mattered more… than athlete welfare”.

British Gymnastics and UK Sport both issued apologies, with Allen’s successor Sarah Powell saying: “I am sorry – to them for what they have experienced, to their parents and all those around them.”

Powell said the governing body accepted all the recommendations in the report and “will not shy away” from taking the steps required to restore confidence in both British Gymnastics and the sport as a whole.

“This is a genuine apology, from the sport, from myself, from the leadership,” added Powell. “We have to set a new path, a new roadmap. Gymnastics will be different because of the bravery of the young people who spoke up.

“We know we will be judged by our actions, not our words. We are going to have to rebuild trust and that is not going to be easy. The practices of the past are not going to be the practices of the future.”

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An interim independent review of British Gymnastics in March 2021 found dozens of cases so serious, they alerted authorities because of suspected criminal conduct or children being at risk.

Almost 400 individuals have contributed to the review which has heard "re-occurring issues" of bullying, extreme weight management and the use of excessive physical force among other complaints. 

Over the course of two years, the Whyte team has investigated submissions from more than 90 clubs and 100 coaches.

The report concluded gymnasts and parents believed or were led to believe that the abuse was necessary to achieve success.

On Tuesday, British Gymnastics admitted it had made mistakes: “We want to put right the things that went wrong and want to move forward positively.”

As well as making a commitment to implement the recommendations in the review, British Gymnastics also pointed to the “significant changes” it had already put in place, including increasing the size of the integrity team, new complaint handling systems and making changes at board and leadership levels.