Gymnasts to demand action from governing bodies after abuse scandals

A global alliance of gymnasts will demand the sport’s governing body and the International Olympic Committee make major reforms to prevent further shocking abuse scandals, the Guardian has learned.

Advocacy groups representing abused gymnasts have joined forces to call on the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) to review the minimum age for athletes to compete, introduce significantly stronger welfare standards and establish an international register of banned coaches.

The groups – which include Gymnasts for Change in the UK, Gymnasts Alliance in the US, and others in Australia, New Zealand and Canada – believe the FIG and the IOC have failed to address the underlying issues exposed by Athlete A, the Netflix documentary about the former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, the Whyte review into British Gymnastics and other major scandals.

As things stand, female gymnasts can compete internationally as young as 16 – which requires them to specialise at a very young age and also pushes them to train for long hours when their bodies are still developing. However, many believe that increasing the age to 18, the same age as male competitors, would allow them to step up their training when they were older.

Gymnasts in multiple countries have also reported shocking stories of sexual, physical and mental abuse as well as fat shaming and cultures where medals take precedence over athlete welfare.

The Whyte review, which was published on Thursday, also revealed that coaches would sit on girls as young as seven in a bid to improve their flexibility while some gymnasts would hide food in their knickers and in hotel ceilings because they were so starved by their coaches.

Kevin McKeever, the communications director of Gymnasts for Change UK, confirmed to the Guardian that the groups were now working together and hoped to pressure the FIG and the IOC into making fundamental reforms.

He said the groups had realised there was only so much that could be achieved by reforming national bodies and the fight for change now needed to be carried out internationally.

“Whilst the Whyte review marks a major milestone in reforming the sport we love in the UK, along with our fellow campaigners in other countries, our attention is now turning to the international governing bodies whose control over significant aspects of the sport is absolute,” he added.

The FIG declined to comment on a specific call in the Whyte review for it to raise the minimum age to enter senior women’s competition from 16 to 18 to “reduce the disproportionate training pressures on young girls”. However it said in a statement: “In recent years, the FIG has worked on several initiatives to raise awareness of youth protection and encourage its national member federations to adopt best practices, notably with ‘The 10 Golden Rules of Gymnastics campaign.”’

Meanwhile Becky Downie, who won 14 major medals for Team GB and England during a glittering career before speaking out about the abuse she suffered in 2020, said she welcomed the Whyte report.

“I didn’t want to respond until I had adequate time to read and properly digest everything in the announcement,” she said. “But 24 hours later my overwhelming feeling is that we have been heard.”

Downie, who said she was made to train on a broken ankle and called mentally weak, added: “It feels like vindication for myself and so many who have known for so long of the serious cultural problems in the sport. Already this year I have seen a drastic change in the approach of top level gymnasts in the country.”

However an agent representing many top gymnasts, some of whom are among the 40 taking legal action against British Gymnastics, said the overwhelming feeling was the governing body still needed to do more.

“The gymnasts I represent feel vindicated because the stories of their abuse have been confirmed and validated, when for years they suffered in silence,” the agent said. “But no one has yet been held to account. And the athletes still don’t know if the next time they walk in the gym the same abusers will still be there. They want accountability and feel that British Gymnastics needs to do more to root out abusive coaches.”