Abuse in Gymnastics and Ballet

Posted on: 3 mins read
Kate Hall

Solicitor Graduate, Abuse

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This article was updated on 29 March 2023.

Competitive sports such as gymnastics can involve tough training regimes, which can sadly mean that signs of abuse can go unnoticed, and many victims can be reluctant to speak out as they’re worried about it affecting their career prospects.

As many gymnasts start the sport at such a young age, this can also mean that some victims are too young to understand the nature of what’s happening to them and fearful of letting their parents down, especially if their parents are putting extra pressure on them to perform.

This has caused many signs and symptoms of sports abuse to have become normalised in sports like gymnastics, which are physically very demanding and notoriously competitive. But it’s important that we change this culture so we can protect anyone who is suffering from abuse.

Signs of Abuse in Sport

Sport abuse can take many shapes and forms - it can be a one-off instance or can be prolonged over several years or even decades.

Some examples of abuse include:

  • Bullying and intimidation
  • Physical assault
  • Pressure to carry on training despite complaints of pain
  • Abusive coaching techniques
  • Harmful weight management techniques, linked to the development of eating disorders, body dysmorphia and unhealthy relationships with food
  • Sexual assault

Victims can feel intimidated by their coaches and their position of power, especially if they’re well-known or respected in the field.

Independent Whyte Review Reveals Gymnasts Were Abused

An independent review into British Gymnastics has highlighted a culture where young gymnasts have been “starved, body shamed and abused” in pursuit of medals and awards.

The Whyte Review was based on over 400 submissions from people involved in British gymnastics. It outlined stories of young children who had been routinely humiliated, deprived of food and toilet breaks, and even injured by coaches who sat on them as they attempted difficult stretches.

More than 40 percent of the people who contributed to the report stated that they had experienced or witnessed physical abuse from coaches towards gymnasts. One contributor said they didn’t know how their legs didn’t “snap” under the physical pressure that was inflicted on them.

The report also referenced the “damaging lengths” coaches would go to control and monitor what young gymnasts were eating. One submission described how a young gymnast had developed an eating disorder and when her coach was made aware of this, they continued to shame her weight.

As a result of the review, four key areas have been identified for improvement, these include:

  • The care of children and welfare
  • Complaints handling
  • Standards and education
  • Governance and oversight

We hope that the findings of this report encourage the government to act quickly to look at and act upon the pressing issues that still exist within the sport of gymnastics.

Following on from the Whyte Review, British Gymnastics – the national governing body for gymnastics in the UK – has said it plans to “break the cycle of poor past practice.” They will do this by introducing a 40-point action plan which will be carried out in phases up until 2025. The plan sets out reforms across key areas that the Whyte Review identified.

As Abuse Lawyers, we’re pleased to see that the findings of the Whyte Review are being taken seriously and we’ll be monitoring the implementation of the planned changes.

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Recent Examples of Sports Abuse in the News

Former Olympic diver Brian Phelps was arrested in 2008 and plead guilty to charges of indecent assault, but denied charges of rape and attempted rape, which was accepted by Bournemouth Crown Court.

The Whyte Review, and recent news of mistreatment of children within sport, prompted a woman in her 50s to come forward in February 2023 about abuse she experienced by Phelps, which he denies. The accusations include rape, molestation, and indecent exposure.

The woman, who goes by the pseudonym “Emma”, claims that the abuse continued throughout her early gymnastics career but “the better she got, the harder it was to leave”. She sadly now lives with serious trauma and says she knows of others who experienced abuse by Phelps. Emma says she reported this abuse to the police and council in 1993, but she did not pursue a criminal case, and realised in 2008 there were other victims. She is now considering taking legal action.

The Metropolitan police said it was unable to respond to this specific case. However, in a statement, the force said: “We take all reports of abuse, recent or non-recent, extremely seriously. Specially trained officers will support victim-survivors and we will work to seek justice for them wherever possible.

In the wake of “Emma’s” decision to report, around two dozen other women have come forward to make accusations against Phelps and his wife Monica for abuse while they were running Olga gymnastics club in Poole. Gymnasts for Change are supporting the group of complainants.

The Whyte review shows the need for urgent reform within the sports industry and we hope that it empowers more survivors to come forward to seek justice against perpetrators of abuse.

A former gymnastics coach was imprisoned in December 2022 for 7 years, after being found guilty of 11 counts of sexual assault. As an instructor in the 1990s and 2000s, Norman Hogbin used his position of trust to groom four young girls.

The four women testified against Hogbin in court, speaking of how he befriended their parents and gave them preferential treatment and gifts. Some of the women were as young as 8 years old when the abuse began. 

Detective Sergeant Michaela Haddock praised the women for their courage in speaking out against the now 66-year old Hogbin. She expressed her hope that his imprisonment and indefinite sexual harm prevention order would bring them the conclusion they deserve.

She added that she had “the upmost admiration” for the women, who had “shown unfailing courage and incredible strength” to speak about their experience.

Yat-Sen Chang was found guilty of sexually assaulting girls and women at the English National Ballet and Young Dancers Academy in London between 2009 and 2016. Chang used his position as a ‘famous and revered’ ballet dancer to take advantage of students in his care.

The victims, aged between 16 and 18 at the time, said that Chang would touch them inappropriately during massages.

The Court heard how Chang ‘trusted that his fame and his position would protect him from complaint, or from consequences of his actions.’

The 49-year-old has been convicted of 12 counts of sexual assault and one count of assault by penetration.

Hoping to change the future of coaching in gymnastics are 17 current and former gymnasts. The women and girls, aged between 15 and 43, are taking legal action against governing body British Gymnastics over allegations of physical and psychological abuse.

The victims were aged between 6 and 23 at the time of the alleged abuse, and nearly all of them have struggled with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as a result of their abuse.

They’re calling for better safeguarding and transparency, and are hoping that the outcome ‘ensures the safety of future generations.’

The investigation into the abuse allegations is still ongoing.

Following on from the Whyte Review, British Gymnastics – the national governing body for gymnastics in the UK – has said it plans to “break the cycle of poor past practice.” They will do this by introducing a 40-point action plan which will be carried out in phases up until 2025.

The plan sets out reforms across key areas, including culture and strategy, welfare, safeguarding and complaints. Perhaps most notably, the governing body has announced it will now publicly list the names of banned coaches on the British Gymnastics website.

There will also be better support in place for gymnasts who take the courageous decision to report abuse or make a complaint against a staff member. As well as this, gymnasts and parents will have the opportunity to become more involved in making decisions around training loads and competition age limits.

The chief executive of British Gymnastics, Sarah Powell, has acknowledged that mistakes have been made in the past and she recognises that progress that must be made. As Abuse Lawyers, we’re pleased to see that the findings of the Whyte Review are being taken seriously and we’ll be monitoring the implementation of the planned changes.

“Justice that we will fight for”

The cases we continue to see in the news show that there is still more to be done to prevent abuse in gymnastics and competitive sports.

Our Abuse Solicitors have seen the devastating effects that sports abuse can have on victims, who often feel trapped and unable to speak out because they’re worried about losing their career or a sport that they love.

We hope that as more victims come forward, changes will be made to the training processes in competitive sport to protect others from being abused in the future.

As Olympic gymnast Jennifer Pinches says, “This is just the beginning of the sweeping changes that we are demanding, and the justice that we will fight for.”

Our specialist Abuse Law team have extensive experience in helping people claim compensation for abuse they experienced as a child in gymnastics and other sports settings. It can be challenging to speak about your experiences, but even if the abuse happened to you years ago, our Abuse team are here to listen and help. For initial confidential advice, get in touch with our supportive team today.

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