17 British Gymnasts Allege Systemic Physical, Psychological Abuse by Coaches

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorFebruary 26, 2021

Netherlands' Sanne Wevers celebrates after winning gold on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Seventeen former gymnasts, including three Olympians, have sent British Gymnastics a Letter Before Action stating their intent to take legal action against the organization based on their allegations that numerous coaches subjected them to "systemic physical and psychological abuse." 

The news has been reported by CNN's Matias Grez, Sean Ingle of the Guardian and Ken Maguire of the Associated Press, among others.

Hausfield, the law firm representing the gymnasts, who are all women, started the alleged abuse included "inappropriate use of physical force by coaches against gymnasts constituting physical assault" and "abusive and harmful coaching techniques which have no justification in science or theory," per Grez.

The statement from Hausfield reads that the gymnasts have suffered long-term "psychological and physical damage" as a result of the allegations, per Grez, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gymnasts reported specific physical abuse including being "punched, kicked, slapped or held by the ears by coaches," per Ingle. These acts were allegedly done as a "form of humiliation" for not performing correctly.

Per Ingle, the letter also said that gymnasts were forced to "starve themselves" in order to hit goal weights and that those who did not hit those goals were forced to undergo "punishment conditioning" or wear fat suits.

"British Gymnastics implemented a model of suspended pre-pubescence leading to generations of girls with eating disorders, body image issues, and deliberately stunted physical development," the letter reads, according to Ingle. "Many of the claimants now suffer from eating disorders, body dysmorphia and/or an unhealthy relationship with food."

Claire Heafford, the campaign director of Gymnasts for Change and one of the 17 claimants, released a statement, via Maguire.

"This is a landmark moment in our campaign for justice," Heafford said. "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."

Jennifer Pinches, who competed for Great Britain in the 2012 Summer Olympics, also provided a statement, per Ingle:

"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 heartbreaking 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."

British Gymnastics acknowledged receipt of the Letter Before Action but declined further comment.

"It would not be appropriate or fair to all parties for us to make any comment until we have had the opportunity for it to be fully considered," the organization said, per Maguire.

Ex-British Gymnastics CEO Jane Allen recently retired in December as the organization was being investigated for allegations of abuse.

Last August, she wrote an exclusive article for the Telegraph, saying that the organization had "fallen short" of protecting the gymnasts and that those who had spoken out were "very brave."