Gymnasts take legal action against governing body following decades of abuse

17 former British gymnasts, including 3 Olympians, have served a Letter of Claim on British Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, outlining allegations of systemic physical and psychological abuse, perpetrated by coaches upon children as young as six.

The claimants allege that during training and competitions they were subjected to persistent abuse that has caused them to sustain serious and continuing psychological and physical damage.

The abuse was perpetrated by coaches and others employed by British Gymnastics at various clubs across the UK, all of which were affiliated with the governing body.

At this stage, the victims are all women, who at the time of the abuse were aged between six and 23. The current age range of claimants is between 15 and 43 years old.

The allegations involve both physical and psychological abuse. Examples include:  

Physical abuse

  • Widespread inappropriate use of physical force by coaches against gymnasts constituting physical assault.
  • A ‘cavalier’ attitude to injury and/or complaints of pain and pressure on gymnasts to continue to train whilst injured.
  • General and widespread failure by coaches to properly supervise physically demanding and potentially dangerous disciplines
  • Abusive and harmful coaching techniques which have no justification in science or theory.
  • This conduct is alleged by many in the Claimant group to have caused multiple and long-lasting musculoskeletal injuries.

Psychological abuse

Inappropriate and baseless weight management techniques were widespread and very often deployed against young children, which is alleged to have caused eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and an unhealthy relationship with food, from which many of the Claimants have been unable to recover.

  • Coaches excessively controlled, directly and indirectly, gymnasts’ diet and fluid intake.
  • Widespread bullying and intimidating behaviour perpetrated by coaches against gymnasts and parents.
  • Controlling behaviour by coaches inhibiting gymnasts’ social interactions beyond the gym.
  • Frequent, unnecessary, and abusive punishments for minor and/or non-existent “offences”.
  • Coaches used ‘gaslighting’ and other manipulative behaviour to undermine and break their gymnasts.
  • In almost all cases this conduct is alleged to have caused psychological injury, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which, it is alleged, continue to afflict many of the Claimants to this day.

Litigation law firm Hausfeld & Co LLP is serving the Letter of Claim on behalf of the gymnasts represented by the Firm.

Claimants include Claire Heafford, former elite gymnast and athlete rights advocate who last year helped to set up the campaign group Gymnasts for Change. In July 2020, Gymnasts for Change spoke out about concerns of an endemic cycle of abuse and systemic cover up by British Gymnastics as the body prioritised sporting success over the health of its athletes.

The Letter of Claim sets out that the practices reported across the Claimant group are consistent with a ‘winning at all costs’ mentality at the elite level of the sport, with British Gymnastics prioritising sporting success over the physical and psychological needs of individual athletes, many of whom were children at the relevant time.

The revelations made in July 2020 led to the commissioning of The Whyte Review by Sport England and UK Sport, led by Anne Whyte QC. Shortly after the revelations, Jane Allen, then CEO of British Gymnastics stepped down from her position in December 2020.

The abuse revealed in the UK follows similar cases in other countries, including the United States (see notes).

Claire Heafford, Former Elite Gymnast, Athlete Rights Advocate and Campaign Director of Gymnasts for Change, said:

“This is a landmark moment in our campaign for justice. This is not and has never been about a few bad apples, this is about decades of systemic abuse, encouraged and covered up by those at the top. The hopes and dreams of countless children and young adults of competing as professional gymnasts have been destroyed and their love for the sport is now shrouded in fear and suffering. My heart goes out to everyone who has felt this pain and have not yet spoken out - we want you to know that we are here, fighting on your side."

Olympic gymnast Jennifer Pinches, Founder of the 2020 #gymnastalliance movement and Community Director of Gymnasts for Change, said:

“For too long we have seen British Gymnastics prioritise podiums over people, which has led to untold damage to the lives of young people. It is a heart-breaking truth to face, knowing the level of abuse that we and so many others were subjected to. This is just the beginning of the sweeping changes that we are demanding, and the justice that we will fight for.”

Sarah Moore, Partner at Hausfeld & Co LLP, said:

“We are proud to represent this group of courageous women advancing claims against British Gymnastics. No legal action can turn the clock back for those who have suffered harm, however, through this action we hope to assist the Claimants in bringing their voices together to gain redress at a personal level, and drive long-lasting change at the heart of British Gymnastics. Any sporting culture which normalises body-shaming amongst young children and fails to prioritise the physical and psychological well-being of those involved must be held to account.”

The case is reported widely in the press:

BBC News - article one, article two
BT
Daily Mail
ITV News
Law360 (subscription only)
Legal Week (subscription only)
Reuters
Sky News
Sky Sports
The Guardian - article one, article two
The Telegraph - article one, article two
The Times 
Yahoo Sports