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Gymnasts in legal claim against British Gymnastics say abusive culture remains

Jamie Gardner, PA Chief Sports Reporter
·4-min read

The gymnasts behind a legal claim against British Gymnastics say there is still an abusive culture within the sport in this country which must be tackled urgently.

Seventeen individuals, all female and now aged between 15 and 43, have launched the claim after alleging they were victims of systemic physical and psychological abuse.

One of the claimants, Claire Heafford, likened coming out of the club gymnastics environment to “leaving a cult”.

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Sarah Moore, a partner at the Hausfeld law firm which issued the letter of claim, says this is about tackling an existing culture, not just addressing historic allegations.

“Some of the claimants remain very close to the gymnastics community,” she told the PA news agency.

“They can see that this isn’t a ‘past tense’ issue, it is being sustained currently, hence the urgency of acting.

“They have been subject to coercive control behaviours in a power dynamic that made them feel very vulnerable.

“There is a real determination to make sure this perpetual cycle normalising abuse at the heart of this sport is tackled.

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“What’s still surprising is some of these women still love gymnastics, they feel passionately that it can be a positive force. For the love of the sport, for the next generation of athletes, they feel this is an urgent matter.

“The damage that it can do to individuals still within the sport is hugely significant, as is the damage that it can do to British Gymnastics as an institution.”

Moore said the hope was that British Gymnastics would engage in alternative dispute resolution (ADR), but that legal proceedings would be issued if it did not. A response has been sought before the end of March.

Heafford, the founder of the Gymnasts For Change group and a leading campaigner for change within the sport, spoke about her life as a young gymnast between the ages of 10 and 15.

“There was physical abuse, pushing and slapping,” she said.

“Despite training six hours a day we were told every day that we hadn’t done well enough, we weren’t trying hard enough, they were ashamed of us.

“These belittling, humiliating things were shouted at us on a daily basis.”

After one incident which prompted her parents to complain, she said that although the physical abuse stopped “I was basically dropped and considered not (to have) Olympic potential”.

She added: “I was then humiliated on a daily basis, and the others were told ‘if you don’t try hard, you’re going to be like her’.

Claire Heafford pictured during her time as a gymnast
Claire Heafford pictured during her time as a gymnast (Handout/Claire Heafford)

“Me and my parents were sure if we moved elsewhere there would be similar behaviours going on there.

“When you leave, it’s a little bit like leaving a cult – you get ostracised, rumours get spread about the reasons you’ve left.”

Heafford moved onto athletics, and it was only when her time in track and field came to an end that she began to be “haunted” by her experience in gymnastics.

“For many gymnasts it’s really common to have severe feelings of worthlessness,” she said.

“At key moments of pressure these feelings of worthlessness come up, these things hit you triply hard because you think everything’s your fault, you think you shouldn’t have tried in the first place because you haven’t got any right to, you think you’re talentless, that no matter how hard you work you’re not going to achieve what you want because you were told as a child that you were rubbish.”

British Gymnastics said in a statement: “We took receipt of the letter on the afternoon of February 25.

“It would not be appropriate or fair to all parties for us to make any comment until we have had the opportunity for it to be fully considered.”

The Whyte Review into allegations of mistreatment within the sport of gymnastics in the UK remains ongoing.