Hausfeld's British Gymnastics litigation ~ The Whyte Review: exposing a 'culture of fear'

On 16 June 2022, Anne Whyte QC published her Final Report which was commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England in response to allegations of mistreatment by a large number of gymnasts from August 2020 onwards. She identifies the Report as marking “an important moment for gymnastics” and hopes that the sport “seizes the opportunity for change”.

In a tribute to all of the gymnasts and individuals who participated in the report she notes that “to do otherwise would be to ignore the courage of the gymnasts and individuals who have come forward to express their concerns in the hope that the sport of gymnastics can learn from past mistakes and set a new course for a successful future” [para.100]

Hausfeld are acting for a group of 38 former elite gymnasts, including 4 Olympians, all of whom have made allegations of physical and emotional abuse against coaches and other personnel engaged by British Gymnastics in facilities across the country. The Hausfeld Group include claims from as early as 1983 through to 2018.  

Anne Whyte QC’s report was focussed on investigating allegations of mistreatment in gymnastics for the period 2008-2020. Reports indicate that since that date £38 million has been granted to British Gymnastics by funding bodies.

Key findings

The key findings of the Final Report are summarised as follows:

Under the Terms of Reference on the Review, Anne Whyte was required to determine whether:

  • gymnasts' wellbeing and welfare is (and has been) at the centre of the culture of British Gymnastics, its registered clubs and member coaches and if not, why not;
  • safeguarding concerns and complaints have been dealt with appropriately in the sport of gymnastics and if not, why not; and,
  • gymnasts, or their parents, carers or guardians, have felt unable to raise complaints with appropriate authorities and if so, why.

The Final Report has found that the answer to each of those 3 questions is negative, concluding:

  • Gymnast wellbeing and welfare has not been at the centre of BG’s culture for much of the period of the Review” [para.5].
  • “To its current reputation and financial cost, BG has failed to focus adequately” on the critical functions of safeguarding, education, complaints handling and policy implementation [para.7]
  • “The difficulties now confronting BG are borne of inadequate practice and procedure. They also reflect a culture which was less than inclusive and open and which was the product of the way in which people behaved and were allowed to behave” [para.8]
  • “There has at times been a failure to see the bigger welfare picture because there has been too much focus on success as the goal [para.40]
  • “BG has historically failed to invest sufficient human and financial resources into the management of safeguarding welfare and concerns” [para.70]

Anne Whyte QC notes that: “There has been a collective failure by BG and by some clubs and coaches to appreciate that the feelings and experiences of children and young people engaging in gymnastics really do matter.”

She identifies a series of “cultural themes” that are responsible for these failings including:

  • A “coach led culture” in which gymnasts were expected to “follow directions from coaches rather than have any meaningful say in decisions about their training and development” [para.29]
  • A “culture of fear” in which some coaches “exerted and were allowed to exert excessive control” creating a “dysfunctional dynamic” in which it “became quite normal for a highly successful young gymnast to be frightened of the very person towards whom they simultaneously felt immense gratitude and affection” [para.32]
  • The fact that BG was an “insular organisation” disconnected from the clubs in which members coached and participated [para.33], and which failed to ensure the dissemination and comprehension of policy information, where it did exist, to clubs and members [para.57]
  • A lack of centralization which, inadvertently contributed to “the empowerment of coaches, rather than gymnasts” [para.35]
  • Restriction on parental access to training [para.37]
  • The recruitment of coaches from countries previously influenced or occupied by, the former Soviet Union, some of whom were autocratic, dismissive and “left athletes feeling like commodities” [para.38]
  • The fact that 58% of BG coaches are former gymnasts and that “inappropriately coached gymnasts are at real risk of coaching inappropriately themselves” [para.44]
  • A culture in which gymnasts were rendered unable and unwilling to speak out about abuse due to their involvement with the sport from a young age gymnasts “forge intense, protracted and quasi-parental relationships of dependence on just one coach” [para.88]
  • A “defensive and myopic approach” to criticism, such that when complaints were raised they were not dealt with appropriately [para.90]
  • A “cultural disregard for what is now referred to as “the athlete voice” [para.92]

Failings from the top down

Anne Whyte QC identifies failings at all levels of BG’s organisation, noting that “it felt at times as though people of influence in BG have neglected the concept of culture” [para.98].

Tellingly she explains that:

“When I pressed various Board members about what the Board could and should have known of the extent of cultural malaise and the prevalence of emotional and physical abuse in the sport, I was met more than once with the rhetorical response 'we only know what we know'. This is no answer. Gaps in Board room knowledge start and end with the Board and with the CEO.” [para.97]

Recommendations

The Final Report makes a number of recommendations, set out on pages 29 to 31.

Potential reforms

Anne Whyte QC also points at reforms that she thinks would make a significant difference to the safety of gymnasts, albeit she stops short of making these points recommendations of her report [para.11]:

  • The creation of a Sports Ombudsman, in line with Tanni Grey-Thompson’s recommendations in 2017, which would constitute a central independent sport regulator so that individuals affected by abuse in sports could bring their complaints to an entity beyond the confines of the sport in which they are involved, i.e. an entity other than the national governing body of the sport concerned – which have often been slow to act on allegations because of conflicts of interest relating to funding and reputation damage.
  • Raising the current senior age restriction for female gymnasts from 16 to 18 years old in line with male gymnasts. This reflects Anne Whyte’s findings that female gymnasts are exposed earlier to potentially abusive dynamics and so are at greater risk.

What happens next?

  • BG have issued a statement on their website – accepting all of the recommendations and key findings of Anne Whyte’s report.
  • The Report has recommended that the BG Board publish details of their progress in complying with the report’s recommendations at 6,12 and 24 month intervals [para.12].
  • The Report has suggested that UK Sport and Sport England, who fund BG, look at ways in which to tie compliance with the report’s recommendations to continued funding of British Gymnastics [para. 100]

How does the Final Whyte Report impact the ongoing civil litigation?

The Report concludes that British Gymnastics has failed systemically and persistently to ensure appropriate safeguarding for gymnasts training at BG facilities during the period 2008-2020

That central finding is at the heart of the litigation that Hausfeld initiated in February 2021 on behalf of 38 former elite gymnasts, including 4 Olympians, against BG, alleging that British Gymnastics has been negligent in safeguarding the welfare of former and current gymnasts and is vicariously liable for the actions of the coaches and volunteers for the specific allegations of abuse made by the Claimants, and the significant physical and psychiatric injuries that they have sustained as a consequence.

Whilst the period of allegations investigated by the Whyte Review is shorter than the period over which the Claimants’ allegations are made, from 1978-2018, there are elements of the Final Report which indicate that the cultural failings identified by Anne Whyte QC and her Team are likely to pre-date 2008. This is entirely consistent with the testimony heard by the Hausfeld Team.  

We are continuing to progress the claims upon which we are acting against BG: To date only 1 claim has been settled and we have been frustrated by the slow pace with which BG has engaged with these individual claims.

Given the comprehensive and critical nature of Anne Whyte’s findings we anticipate that BG will now be better placed to resolve the outstanding claims more swiftly.