10 July 2020 08:43
Video report by ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson The head of British Gymnastics is under growing pressure to resign following a string of bullying, and physical and emotional abuse allegations in the sport. The allegations brought to light by ITV News have prompted Cartoon Network - a major financial partner - to publicly suspend its partnership with the organisation. ITV News has heard from a string of gymnasts who have revealed "traumatic" experiences at the hands of their coaches from a young age. British Gymnastics has pledged an independent review, but there are now calls for change at the top of the organisation. On Thursday World Championship medallists Becky and Ellie Downie described "an environment of fear and mental abuse" in the sport - the latest high-profile gymnasts to speak out.
In a statement, the sisters, generally regarded as Team GB's best female gymnastics medal prospects at the Tokyo Olympics, described how "abusive behaviour was so ingrained in our daily lives, that it became completely normalised." Reflecting on their early experiences in the sport, they said: "We certainly didn't realise how wrong it was at the time. It's taken years and years to understand and come to terms with it. "For too long, the health and well-being of young girls has been of secondary importance to a dated, cruel, and – we'd argue – often ineffective culture within women's gymnastics training." Becky Downie, 28, described how she had been "trained to the point of physical breakdown" on many occasions. She added: "As recently as 2018, and given I was by this point a very senior athlete, I attempted to speak up at a national camp about what I considered was an unsafe approach to my personal training. "I was shot down, called 'mentally weak', and told the injury pain levels I was experiencing were in my head." Twenty-year-old Ellie described being forced to strip to her underwear, and how on one occasion a coach had joked that he hoped the bag of painkillers she was holding were in fact diet pills.She said: This never-ending focus on my weight has left deep scars which will never be healed, I suspect. British Gymnastics, which said it would not immediately comment on the sisters' statement. ITV News has heard from a number of gymnasts, current and former, who have shared their experiences of the sport. Athlete Charlie Fellows was a GB medal winner at the 2015 World Championships, but her success came at a cost. The gymnast says what occurred in the training gym "was abuse". As a young athlete she recalls competing despite concerns about her hamstrings as she says she was "too scared" to tell her coaches - she went on to pull both hamstrings in the competition, she says. In light of hearing the other allegations coming to light, Ms Fellows says British Gymnastic's Chief Executive, Jane Allen should stand down. "I don't think Jane Allen should stay on at all, I think she knew what was happening but kept it quiet for so many years. "I honestly don't think she expected so many of us to come forward." Calls for change at the top of British Athletics is something that pre-dates the current leadership. Nathalie Moutia represented Britain for more than a decade in gymnastics competing in the 1990s. She says allegations of abuse are nothing new. "They can't really sort of stand there and say 'oh we didn't know' or 'this is all news to us' - no it isn't. "There's been people for years trying to report these kind of issues and it is literally just ignored. "If that person can't instigate change and make a difference, then they should go, of course they should go." More than three decades on from when she began in gymnastics at four-years-old, Ms Moutia says her experiences in the sport left her with "traumatic memories". She recalls being "shouted at" at nine-years-old for "not concentrating enough". She says coaches told her to splash water all over herself in the bathroom to "wake her up". In another incident - after being apprehensive to perform a new move in front of a visitor - Ms Moutia says at nine or 10-years-old, a coach shouted at her: "Don't you ever, ever say no to me again. If you say no to me again I'll make you do a thousand double skips - and look at you, you can't even count that far". The 40-year-old told ITV News: "I can honestly say that this has destroyed my childhood and my life." That sentiment is echoed by Leah Jacobs - a gymnast who represented Britain from the age of eight - she says her "worst memories are at that young age". "There are a lot of reasons why I quit," she told ITV News. "One of the main reasons is the coaching methods. I always felt sad. All the time. I always felt scared." "It wasn't enjoyable and gymnastics is beautiful and it should be enjoyable." Ms Jacobs says she "lived in constant fear" during her time in the sport. Athletes have told ITV News about a "culture of fear" in gymnastics: In a statement British Gymnastics told ITV News: "Athlete welfare plays an essential role within our performance culture and decision making." It continued: "We have worked with our gymnasts and taken specific actions to ensure that their interests and concerns are always considered and addressed and that they have a choice of routes to raise concerns." The group has also pledged to undertake an internal review. ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott explains the significance of Cartoon Network pulling out of the British Gymnastics partnership But UK Sport and Sport England have raised concerns about how independent such a review can be. In a joint statement the two groups said: "Given the number of serious and deeply concerning allegations that are being made, and which must be dealt with, we are working at pace alongside British Gymnastics to determine the facts. "British Gymnastics has confirmed that it will commission an independent review into the allegations. "We are now taking time to look at the terms of reference of this review to ensure it has sufficient scope to fully address these issues. "What is vital is that athletes and participants feel safe in coming forward with any issues they have faced and that they can feel confident these will be dealt with swiftly and appropriately."