The gymnastics scandal shows the need for an independent sports regulator Gymnastics

Уas it really is worth it? This was the first question I asked the new CEO of British Gymnastics, Sarah Powell, when these stories of vomiting in the White Review became public. Were these 16 shiny Olympic medals, won since 2008, really justified by human cost – to so many young gymnasts, hungry, humiliated and abused by a system that relentlessly placed the pursuit of glory above their well-being? “It’s not about medals and wealth for me,” she said. “It can be both and it has to be both.”

This has certainly not always been the case in British gymnastics. We’ve heard a lot about British sporting exclusivity since the 2012 London Games. But there’s nothing special about seven-year-old girls sitting down from coaches to “stretch” their bodies. Or being attached to bars for long periods of time as punishment. Or be forced to train when they are injured and then punished for crying. It has been part of the book of former Soviet states and China for decades. Realizing that this is common in one of Britain’s golden sports is disgusting and humiliating.

White even revealed multiple accounts in his £ 3 million review of desperately hungry gymnasts hiding food in socks, pants or hotel ceilings to escape coaches checking their “army-style” rooms – and as a result suffering from eating disorders. disorders. “One wonders how many sports scandals it will take before the government of the day decides it needs to take more action to protect children involved in sports,” she wrote at one point. “The ombudsman is an obvious step in the right direction.”

Welcome step, yes. But one that doesn’t go far enough. White’s review convinced me that British sport could no longer be controlled. We now need an independent sports regulator with teeth and perseverance to force the system to finally change.

The status quo cannot continue – not when we have heard the expression ‘culture of fear’ in British sport so many times – in gymnastics, cycling, paragliding, canoeing, rowing, bobsleigh, archery and judo – that it could almost be shortcut to the journalist’s keyboard. Still, there is some kind of review in every scandal and maybe an apology, but no one carries the box. The system continues, leaving the broken behind.

And how can it be true that journalists – Martha Kellner, Matt Lawton, Dan Roan, Steve Scott, George Dobel, Riat Al-Samarai and Nick Harris – usually think of abuses and abuses, not the sports themselves? It is shocking that the White Review found that between 2008 and 2020, there were around 3,500 complaints lodged with British Gymnastics. No one knows for sure, as no records have been collected for eight years. Yet their voices were only heard when the brave informers went to the media.

White’s review revealed that the young gymnasts were hungry, humiliated and abused by a system that puts the pursuit of glory above their well-being. Photo: Visionhaus / Corbis / Getty Images

The main problem, of course, is that in many sports there is an imbalance of power between administrators and coaches – who decide who gets funding and is elected to the teams – and athletes. There is a real risk if you break the omerta.

As one whistleblower told me when I wrote about harassment, racism, sexism and mismanagement in the British bobsled in 2017: “It reminds me of a shoddy wife or a bruised child because people are terrified. No one will stand up and say, ‘This is not right,’ because we are afraid of being sent home, of being cut short and of not being able to compete in the Olympics.

But this problem goes far beyond Olympic sports. Do you remember what Azim Rafik told parliament last year when asked why it took more than a decade for the shocking racism, discrimination and harassment he experienced to be made public? “I tried to express my concerns at the Yorkshire Cricket Club while I had a contract. But nothing was done. “

All this is completely unacceptable. . . but also fixable. We have independent regulators for energy, media and many other sectors. Why not sports? Imagine a body full of the sharpest detectives, investigative journalists, lawyers, financial accountants and security guards, one with investigative and law enforcement powers. Such a department could be responsible for protecting athletes and children, integrity issues, financial regulation and even catching sports fraud – it certainly could not do worse than anti-doping in the UK in that sense.

However, acquaintances tell me that the government is against a sports ombudsman or regulator. They say it will cost money and take time to pass legislation, which is true, although it can certainly be funded by a fee on TV sports rights deals. Some also point to the difficulty of getting Tracy Crouch’s football regulator in her fan-led review.

I accept part of that. However, I am also told that the government believes that UK Sport and Sport England, which fund elite and grassroots sports, have enough leverage to control the organizations to which they give money. This will come as news for UK Sport. Any journalist who asks about abuses in Olympic sports usually receives an email stating that “we have no regulatory or investigative powers in relation to internal sports disputes or the affairs of sports governing bodies.”

While Sport England has the power to take money from the organizations it funds, it also has many governing bodies – especially in the martial arts – it has no control. As a matter of fact, this is too illegal for comfort.

By the way, I was told that the government is seriously consulting on a new sports strategy, which it intends to publish in the coming months. So there is still time to think again about the sports regulator. And if they do not act after the most shameful and humiliating scandal in British Olympic history, then when?

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