British Gymnastics, the UK’s National Governing Body for gymnastics, has announced “a comprehensive 40-point action plan” for reform following the Whyte Review’s damning findings of prolific physical and emotional abuse within the organisation.

The Whyte Review’s findings

Anne Whyte QC, the independent barrister commissioned by Sport England and UK Sport to carry out the review in August 2020, concluded that the “coach-led culture” at British Gymnastics had failed to focus on safeguarding, education, complaints handling and policy implementation. During her investigation, Whyte interviewed over 400 gymnasts, 40% of whom reported suffering physically abusive behaviour between August 2008 and August 2020, predominantly during training. Over 50% of interviewees reported suffering emotional abuse, ranging from inappropriate verbal communications including “shouting, swearing, name calling and use of belittling language…” to “gaslighting, excessively controlling behaviour and suppressing athletes’ opinions and emotions.”

The Whyte Review was accepted by British Gymnastics. Sarah Powell, British Gymnastics’ Chief Executive, said in a 16 June 2022 statement that there was “no place for abuse of any kind in our sport and coaching standards of the past will not be those of the future.”

Reform ‘25

On 18 October, British Gymnastics announced its response to the Whyte Review: the “Reform ‘25” initiative, which will amount to “zero tolerance” to all forms of abuse, “whether that be emotional, physical, or sexual – with us working with clubs, coaches, gymnasts, parents to understand and communicate what an open, transparent, carrying, empowered and safe environment looks like”. The organisation emphasised that the programme has been developed with an acknowledgment that change is needed, “with a move away from prioritising medals to making the care of people and maximising the positive impact gymnastics can have central to the culture of the sport.”

The program will be delivered in four phases between now and 2025, with the focus landing on four “key, inter-connected areas”: Culture & Strategy; Welfare, Safeguarding & Complaints; Education & Development, and Performance. As a part of the Reform ’25 policy, a list of banned coaches will be published on British Gymnastics’ website.

The policy aims to foster a culture of continuous learning and development, which will include providing coaches with an education which “is not just predominantly technical but concentrates on ‘how’ things should be done as well as ‘what’ should be done.”

Responses to Reform ‘25

The Reform ’25 plan has received full support of the Whyte Review’s commissioning bodies. In a joint statement, Sally Munday and Tim Hollingsworth, the respective CEOs of UK Sport and Sport England, welcomed the plan and noted that while “there is no quick fix to the challenges facing the sport of gymnastics, as so clearly set out in the Whyte Review, these are important first steps on a long-term journey of change.”

Gymnasts for Change, a global network of current and former gymnasts, welcomed Reform 25’s promise to revise British Gymnastics’ complaints process and improve safeguarding provisions. However, the network also criticised the plan for perceived shortfalls in an 18 October press release in that:

  1. a loophole whereby coaches who have been removed from the sport can return as choreographers, rather than coaches, remains; and
  2. meaningful reform would need to go beyond Reform ‘25 to include:

a. oversight by an independent body;

b. changes at a grassroots level; and

c. further wellbeing support.

British Gymnastics’ response illustrates a clear intention to replace a broken culture with one which is built on athletes’ safety and wellbeing. While Reform ’25 already goes beyond the Whyte Review’s recommendations, there are other steps that British Gymnastics could take to protect its gymnasts against further abuse including:

  • Implementing a scheme for gymnasts to have trained “guardians” who sit outside of the regular reporting lines and have had training to support them by actively listening and offering confidential advice on options for next steps;
  • Establishing confidential reporting lines to encourage victims to come forward; and
  • Ensuring that the reformed educational programme for coaches includes mental health and wellbeing training.

Whether Reform ’25 will give British Gymnastics the apparatus it needs to revolutionise its approach to safeguarding remains to be seen. At the time of writing, it is reported that only one of the hundred coaches named in the Whyte Review have actually been banned from the sport. In an interview with ITV news, former Olympian Jennifer McIlveen said that only eleven safeguarding caseworkers are assigned to the complaints.

If you would like to discuss how to investigate an instance of bullying, harassment, safeguarding or a wider cultural problem or develop a programme to minimise the risk within your organisation, please get in touch with your usual Lewis Silkin contact to discuss how we can help or a member of our Investigations team.