Ongoing Sports Abuse in Gymnastics and Ballet

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Kate Hall

Solicitor Graduate, Abuse

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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.

If you or a loved one has suffered abuse, no matter how long ago, our Abuse Solicitors could help you. Get in touch for a confidential case assessment. 

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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.

 

Recent Examples of Sports Abuse in the News

 

Former Olympic Diver Accused of Abuse

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. But 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.

 

Former Gymnastics Coach Jailed for 7 years

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.

 

Former Ballet Dancer Guilty of Sex Offences

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.

 

British Gymnasts Take Legal Action over Abuse

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.

 

British Gymnastics Launches “Zero Tolerance” Plan for Abuse

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.

 

Has Safeguarding in Sports Improved?

In 2006, the government set out ways that organisations and individuals should be safeguarding vulnerable people, including children. This was done with the aim of making abuse and neglect easier to identify and act upon.

A safeguarding policy is often put into place where an organisation or group is based around children. Schools, nurseries, sports clubs and so on, will all have safeguarding measures in place to ensure that the children in their care are kept safe: proper vetting of staff and volunteers, noting what/ who could pose a risk to the children, how an organisation responds to allegations of neglect or abuse, etc.

More recently, in the case of the convicted football coach Alfie Morel, we’ve seen how safeguarding polices allowed the FA and other authoritative figures to recognise the abuse taking place and take the relevant steps to report it.

Despite this, we know that there are still improvements to be made.

 

It is never too Late to report Historical Abuse

Courts do have times limits in place for bringing compensation claims. But where the claim is for sexual abuse, the Court does have the ability to disapply these time limits. The Court has this ability to change the time frame rule, as they understand there are many reasons why victims don’t come forward straight away.

“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. Call us on 0808 239 5366, because when you’re ready to talk, we’re ready to listen.

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Kate Hall

Solicitor Graduate, Abuse

Areas of Expertise:
Abuse Claims

Kate works as a Solicitor Graduate Apprentice in our Abuse Claims Department, with a goal to qualify as a Solicitor in 2024.

After completing her education at Leeds Beckett University in 2018, Kate decided to specialise in Abuse Claims. Within this department, she has gained experience dealing with Civil Claims against various institutions including local authorities, public schools, religious institutions and charitable organisations. This includes the Manchester Homes 2 Group Action and the claims against Manchester City Council for abuse at St Anne’s School. Kate has also successfully navigated claims through the Lambeth and Manchester City Redress Schemes.

References

Simpson Millar LLP. (n.d.). Sports Abuse Claims Solicitors. Retrieved from https://www.simpsonmillar.co.uk/abuse-claims-solicitors/sports-abuse/

The Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU). (n.d.). Introduction to Safeguarding: Child Abuse in a Sports Setting. Retrieved from https://thecpsu.org.uk/help-advice/introduction-to-safeguarding/child-abuse-in-a-sports-setting/

Sport England. (n.d.). Safeguarding. Whyte Review. Retrieved from https://www.sportengland.org/guidance-and-support/safeguarding/whyte-review

UK Sport. (n.d.). The Whyte Review. Retrieved from https://www.uksport.gov.uk/resources/the-whyte-review

Talksport. (2019, February 1). Gymnastics Could 'Die' as Governing Body British Gymnastics Restricts Growth. Retrieved from https://talksport.com/sport/493042/gymnastics-could-die-as-governing-body-british-gymnastics-restricts-growth/

BBC Sport. (2022, December 8). Gymnastics: Former GB Athlete Claims 'Very Small Amount' of People Will Speak Out. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/gymnastics/64647237

The Guardian. (2023, February 17). Holding Gymnastics to Account: Why One Alleged Victim of Sexual Abuse Is Speaking Out. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2023/feb/17/holding-gymnastics-to-account-why-one-alleged-victim-of-sexual-abuse-is-speaking-out

Gymnasts for Change. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.gymnastsforchange.com/

BBC News. (2023, February 24). Gymnastics: Ex-Olympic Doctor Accused of Sexually Abusing Athletes Found Dead. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-64062568

BBC News. (2022, October 29). British Gymnastics: Sex Abuse Victims Still Awaiting Justice. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-58982951

Marie Claire UK. (2023, February 20). British Gymnastics Abuse Allegations. Retrieved from https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/life/health-fitness/british-gymnastics-abuse-allegations-729804

British Gymnastics. (n.d.). British Gymnastics Launch Reform 25. Retrieved from [https://www.british-gymnastics.org/articles/british-gymn

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