British Gymnastics has an abuse problem | Bolt Burdon Kemp British Gymnastics has an abuse problem | Bolt Burdon Kemp

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British Gymnastics has an abuse problem

For decades, a problem has been festering at the heart of gymnastics.

For far too long, senior coaches have been able to act with total impunity, forcing young children to experience extreme and militaristic exercise regimes whilst bullying and humiliating dissenting voices into silence.

Some coaches have abused their power and authority to commit terrible crimes against the children they should have been caring for, leaving lives destroyed in their wake.

In the wake of the “me too” movement, numerous prominent gymnasts spoke out about the bullying, abuse and discrimination that they had experienced in the sport in 2020. As a result, Sport England and UK Sport co-commissioned the Whyte Review, an independent report examined allegations of mistreatment in the sport of gymnastics.

At the same time, British Gymnastics also set up an Independent Complaints Process (ICP) to investigate allegations against specific coaches and determine what action, if any, should be taken against those coaches about whom there had been complaints.

I, along with many current and ex-gymnasts, was hoping this could be a watershed turning point for a culture change at the heart of gymnastics. However, the remit of the Whyte review was very limited and did not include the many cases of abuse from before 2008. The ICP was even more limited: it only covered complaints made to the British Athletes Commission between July 6th and October 9th 2020.

More than three years later and many of these complaint processes are still ongoing with no resolution in sight – and very few coaches have been officially reprimanded for their behaviours. It’s a source of frustration amongst every gymnast I’ve spoken with.

Yet at the point that both the Whyte Review and ICP were established, BBK had already made British Gymnastics aware of concerns about safeguarding in the sport that fell outside the terms of these reviews. BBK had already brought a claim in relation to sexual abuse by gymnastics coach Leonard Hollis that fell outside the terms of these reviews. We reached a successful settlement of the survivor’s claim, and in 2020 our brave client Michelle was determined to share her experiences in the hope that this could help other survivors of abuse in gymnastics to speak out too.

As it stands, we now act in more than 40 ongoing claims against British Gymnastics on behalf of gymnasts who have experienced various forms of abuse at the hands of their coaches.

Gymnastics is distinct from other elite sports by the fact that the athletes at the top level are often not yet adults and have usually been undergoing intense and extreme training regimes since they were very young. The pressures of competing at an elite level in any sport are extreme and gymnastics is no different – except that in gymnastics, this pressure falls onto the minds and bodies of vulnerable young children.

Children of such young age are extremely vulnerable to abuse and manipulation by those in power, as they are often not equipped with the psychological tools or confidence to be able to speak out about the stress, anxiety or abuse they are facing. This has meant coaches could push gymnasts beyond breaking point searching for short-term gains without giving any thought to the damage this was causing to their long-term health and wellbeing.

All of this means British Gymnastics should have been taking a leading role in demanding the very highest standards of safeguarding be put in place to protect these young athletes – but instead many senior gymnastics coaches have operated almost entirely at their own whim with little to no oversight, and this in turn has allowed them to intimidate, bully and abuse.

The clients we are acting for in ongoing claims against British Gymnastics have alleged a wide range of abusive behaviours by gymnastics coaches including but not limited to:

  • Sexual abuse/sexually inappropriate behaviour and grooming.
  • Weight shaming/inappropriate weight management techniques.
  • Verbal abuse, bullying, intimidating behaviours. My clients have described being regularly called “stupid”, “useless”, “lazy”, “fat pig”, “disgusting”, “bad” and “ugly” in public.
  • Physical abuse, including assaults, cruel and abusive punishments, extreme stretching routines.
  • Controlling and manipulative psychological behaviour.
  • Being made to train on severe injuries and medical advice being ignored, including being forced to continue training despite having a foot in a plaster cast.
  • Gender-based objectification/humiliation.
  • Racist abuse.

It should not be underestimated how damaging each aspect of abuse like this can be when it is coming from a trusted adult in a position of power over a child. This abuse has caused irreparable harm to some of our clients, from long-term debilitating physical injuries to psychological harm including anxiety, depression, disordered eating/anorexia, body dysmorphia, PTSD and even self-harm and suicide attempts.

I call on anyone who has experienced any form of abuse in gymnastics to come forward as soon as possible and report their experiences either to the police or by making formal complaints to British Gymnastics (you can contact them at

If all survivors of abuse in gymnastics can speak together with one voice, there is now a powerful opportunity to hold past coaches accountable for their actions as well as change the future leadership and culture in British Gymnastics for the better.

Anyone who has suffered abuse in any setting can contact me directly for free, no-obligation, advice about their rights.

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