Gymnastics in crisis as Max Whitlock and others refuse to sign contracts

Croak

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Authors: Rio Sports

British Gymnastics is facing a crisis with its biggest stars, including the double Olympic champion Max Whitlock, refusing to sign World Class Performance Programme contracts and being threatened with having their funding withdrawn.

An internal power struggle between the performance, commercial and management teams about the content of the contract has led to a rebellion among the athletes. The understands almost all of the team which won a record seven medals at the Rio Olympics last summer have refused to sign the contract. The entire men’s artistic squad, including Whitlock who became the first Briton to defend a world title successfully last month, have refused to sign. On the women’s side, the Olympic medallist Amy Tinkler and the European champion Ellie Downie have not signed.

British Gymnastics said in a statement that it was currently “involved in consultation” with the athletes regarding the World Class Performance Programme agreements. It added: “To date, over 50% of the athletes on our World Class Performance Programme have already signed the agreement. The process is still ongoing and due to finish at the end of November. British Gymnastics is working hard to ensure that all athletes are comfortable with the agreement before signing because we respect their views on matters that directly impact them.”

In August the athletes were warned they had three days to put pen to paper or would risk having their UK Sport funding withdrawn. But scores of parents and athlete agents wrote to British Gymnastics to voice concern about the content of the Individual Athlete Plan part of the contract, which they claim would have left the gymnasts open to exploitation. They were then told that the contract would be revisited after the world championships which took place in Montreal last month.

One insider described the situation as “complete chaos, evidence of weak leadership and British Gymnastics’ need for complete control over the athletes. They are the most important people in the sport but once again they feel they’re being exploited. To be a world-class gymnast all you need is the athlete, coach and the gym and they want to know where all the money is going.” It is understood there will be showdown talks between British Gymnastics and the athletes on Tuesday as the governing body tries to find a resolution to the problem.

Separately the has spoken to several senior coaches who called for the resignation of British Gymnastics’ chief executive, Jane Allen, claiming her “appalling leadership” has created a “culture of fear” where people are afraid to speak up about athlete welfare failings for fear of reprisals.

The coaches, who between them have led gymnasts to many European, world and Olympic competitions over the past 30 years, paint a picture of an organisation ruled by favouritism and where athlete and coach welfare is relegated behind medals.

An email written by the veteran coach John Pirrie on behalf of some of the 90 coaches he works with as a consultant and circulated widely in gymnastic circles calls for Allen to “fall on her sword”.

“It is time for fresh leadership,” wrote Pirrie. “In view of the catastrophic failings over which you, Jane Allen, preside, your position has become untenable in the eyes of too many.”

Among seven bullet points designed to illustrate British Gymnastics’ shortcomings, Pirrie stated: “It appears that some favoured coaches, well known to have used cruel and manipulative strategies on elite gymnasts, continue to work without sanction in British Gymnastics-registered clubs.”

The individuals whom the spoke to said they considered Britain’s performance at the Rio Olympics to have been despite – rather than because – of the governing body. As a result of that success their UK Sport funding increased by more than £2m to £16.7m for the four-year cycle to Tokyo 2020, with an additional £8.3m from Sport England to develop the sport at grassroots level. British Gymnastics was even named national governing body of the year at the BT Sport Industry Awards in 2016.

But that award was regarded as close to parody by many within the sport. “Key persons in the sport feel that the ‘governing body of the year award’ is a total farce,” wrote Pirrie, in his email to Allen, “conning UK Sport into believing that the association’s leadership is peerless and we are one big happy family. This couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The revealed earlier this year that British Gymnastics did not suspend a coach who was reported to its welfare team for alleged emotional and physical abuse in 2012. The same coach was interviewed by police this year on suspicion of child cruelty. Another coach told the British Gymnastics was considered “complicit” with athlete abuse after it failed to remove a coach who was found to have sent an inappropriate picture to a junior gymnast.

“This coach was body shaming a child yet remains in his job,” said one individual, who requested to remain anonymous. “By not doing anything to punish him British Gymnastics is complicit in this abuse. There has been a lot made of athlete welfare cases at British Cycling and quite rightly but in many ways this is worse. These are children we’re talking about and you’re putting them off the sport for life. British Gymnastics is responsible for that.”

Another coach said it was a prevailing opinion among senior coaches that the governing body is not fit for purpose. “There is a culture of fear and people worry about going against the grain because of the possibility of reprisals, of athletes and coaches not being selected because their face doesn’t fit.

“British Gymnastics take duty of care seriously when it suits them,” the coach added. “I’ve seen first hand coaches who are not in favour being suspended more than once for relatively trivial issues. On the other hand, coaches are allowed to get away with abuse cases because they are favourites among the British Gymnastics hierarchy and cosy up to those in power.”

British Gymnastics strongly rejects the accusations, saying: “British Gymnastics has a track record of good governance as evidenced by our adherence to the UK Sport ‘Code of Sports Governance’.

“We have robust governance policies and procedures to cover safeguarding, complaints, standards of conduct and GB team selections, all available online. We ensure all complaints and appeals regardless of their nature are dealt with fairly and effectively where we have the authority to act, with independent assurance of this as necessary. Anyone with a concern or complaint should come forward and we can assure them the matter would be dealt with impartially.

“The chief executive, Jane Allen, leads an organisation committed to creating and inspiring lasting success for gymnastics, as well as driving through important and positive change.”

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