To tackle abuse and misconduct in sport, Women in Sport believe an independent body for safeguarding and duty of care must be created.
Following the allegations of abusive behaviour made by elite gymnasts Nicole Pavier, Becky and Ellie Downie and many others in July 2020, the much-anticipated Whyte Review into British Gymnastics has now been published. Appointed by UK Sport and Sport England as an independent reviewer, Anne Whyte QC found an “unacceptable culture” and concluded that “between 2008 and 2020 there was a failure to put the welfare of participants at the centre of gymnastics, particularly elite gymnastics, and a culture that meant the gymnastics community felt unable to raise their concerns.”
Whilst focus of the Whyte Review is on gymnastics, and we know the new leadership of British Gymnastics is working hard to address these failings, the appalling instances of abuse and the deep-rooted cultural issues the Review has exposed are emblematic of a wider issue across many sports. There is a wider failure to keep athletes safe – one which Women in Sport, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and many other believe will only be solved by the creation of an independent body to investigate, and work to prevent, abuse and misconduct in sport. Anne Whyte QC herself states “One wonders how many sporting scandals it will take before the government of the day appreciates it needs to take more action to protect children who participate in sport, a sector where coaches do not have a central regulator and where most complaints lack independent resolution… An ombudsman is an obvious step in the right direction”.
The allegations are deeply disturbing. Gymnasts and parents have described athletes who have been made to train through significant injuries including broken bones and in one case a torn perineum. There have been allegations made of emotionally and mentally abusive behaviour such as weight-shaming, verbal abuse and being physically isolated if they cried or refused to perform a skill. In some instances, gymnasts were forced to hang on the rings in the gym for a prolonged period of time for being late. And some have reported physical abuse such as being hit by one coach on the legs with a wooden stick and being sat on if they were not fully on the ground while performing the splits. The allegations are horrific and the impact on those who have suffered will undoubtedly be lifelong physically, emotionally or both.
Given the young age of many girls participating at an elite level in gymnastics, these allegations throw sport’s child protection policies and procedures into doubt. But some sports have an equally poor track record in protecting adult athletes, particularly women. Instances of abuse are not limited to children and are not limited to gymnastics.
In some sports there has been a systemic failure to safeguard adults from emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Whilst abuse is notoriously underreported, in recent years a slew of allegations, both historic and recent, have come to light in the media about abuse of children and adults in British sport. In addition to gymnastics, there have been high-profile reports of abusive or inappropriate behaviour in swimming, athletics, wrestling and football. Studies suggest that harassment and abuse occur in all sports, at all levels and at all ages, but that there is an increased risk of harassment and abuse at the highest performance levels. BBC Sport reported that 19 allegations has been made of emotional abuse or neglect of British world-class programme athletes by coaches between 2017 and August 2020, and the 2020 UK Sport Health Check found that 10% of athletes and staff experienced or witnessed unacceptable behaviour. As adults, women are at most risk of sexual and physical abuse due to their relative physical size, biology and widespread misogyny. There are also significant barriers to their raising concerns, not least gender stereotyping that encourages compliance and the male-dominated structure of sport.
The sporting environment creates unique risks when it comes to the welfare and safety of participants. Its inherent physicality means physical contact between athletes and coaches can be normalised and used as a smokescreen for physical or sexual abuse. A ‘success at all costs’ mentality can lead to toleration of misconduct on the proviso of sporting success; successful figures are perceived to be ‘untouchable’ by others within the sport, a high value is traditional placed on athlete compliance and athletes can be expected to ‘tough out’ all kinds of experiences so they can become successful in their field. There are significant opportunities for abuse of power to occur in sport due to its structure. Future careers and success of athletes depends heavily on coaches, management, and ultimately their National Governing Body, all of which can be leveraged to exert control or coercion over athletes. An Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that sport is used as a cover for child sexual abuse, and that coaches and instructors exploited children’s vulnerabilities in order to groom and abuse them. There is no reason to think that this predatory behaviour only affects those under the age of 18.
The systemic and structural problems extend beyond a power imbalance, however, and amounts to a serious conflict of interest at the heart of the sport sector. As it stands, NGBs are expected to act as both the organiser and the regulator of their sport – adjudicating both on individual cases involving figures in their own community, and their own institution. They are expected to mark their own homework and expose misconduct, whilst simultaneously upholding a positive reputation for their sport. There is a clear conflict of interest – one which can lead to a widespread distrust of safeguarding mechanisms and reporting systems, and one which the Governing Bodies, with their limited resources, should not have to navigate.
Women in Sport is calling for the creation of an independent body committed to tackling misconduct and abuse in sport, something Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson first called for in 2017. The independent body would be both proactive and reactive, working with the sports sector to prevent duty of care failings from occurring and promoting best practice, but also adjudicating on cases whereby duty of care failings have allegedly occurred. In every sense of the word, both financially and structurally, it must be completely separate from the structure of sport. The introduction of an independent body with expertise in the areas of safeguarding, welfare, and duty of care, with no conflicting interests, would provide athletes, volunteers, coaches, and management with a trusted mechanism for reporting and investigation. In short taking this approach would make the sports sector safer for everyone involved and help to build back trust in the sector, not least amongst female athletes and parents of children.
The governments of the UK need to wake up to the urgency to address this problem. How many more cases like British Gymnastics need to occur before action is taken? From UK and devolved government to sports clubs on the ground there needs to be an awakening to the need for urgent action. The safety and welfare of those involved in sport has been cast aside for too long in pursuit of sporting success, or to protect the reputation of sporting “heroes”, organisations and the sport itself. If we want a safer sector for women and children, a safer sector for everyone, then it is time to introduce an independent body to rid sport of abuse and misconduct.
 Marks, S., Mountjoy, M., Marcus, M. (2011) “Sexual harassment and abuse in sport: the role of the team doctor” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46(13) pp. 905–908.
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