The impact of the Whyte Review



20 July 2022

Last month Anne Whyte QC published her report into allegations of mistreatment in gymnastics1. The report was commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England in 2020, following the disclosure by a number of gymnasts of alleged abuse they had suffered within the sport.

First and foremost, it is important to recognise the courage of the gymnasts whose disclosures have exposed what the report describes as an "unacceptable culture" where "gymnast well-being and welfare has not been central". 

British Gymnastics (BG), the National Governing Body for the sport, has been quick to recognise and apologise for past failings. BG accepted the findings of the report, with a commitment to improve the culture of the sport going forward, work on which has already started. 

What, though, do the findings of the report mean for sport in a wider context and for National Governing Bodies that are seeking to manage their own safeguarding risks and protect young and vulnerable people taking part in their activities?

Often, when one considers abuse within a sporting context, it conjures thoughts of sexual misconduct, grooming and the most horrific types of predatory behaviour. The Whyte report, however, highlights that abuse and misconduct is not restricted to sexual assault. Many of the cases disclosed described other forms of physical abuse, including inappropriate training methods, overstretching and withholding of food, water and access to toilets. The report also identified issues of emotional abuse, such as swearing, shouting, excessively controlling behaviour and individuals being humiliated in front of peers.

Taken as isolated incidents, many of the circumstances described could be considered poor coaching practice, and the report indeed recognises that in many cases the coaches involved believed they had the gymnasts best interests at heart (in respect of performance and prospects of success, at least). Individual poor practice, if identified and addressed, can be corrected before issues such as those described occur, but when this is sustained and continuous behaviour the abuse suffered by victims can be painful and long-lasting.

British Gymnastics, along with all other National Governing Bodies of sport in the UK, had extensive policies and procedures in place to describe how safeguarding risks should be managed and how its members should be protected. When sports are looking at their policies, they should give thought to whether these are wide enough in terms of what they identify as abuse. Do they consider the effects of inappropriate coaching methods and the impact of such sustained poor practice on those taking part in the sport?

Ms Whyte QC’s report also looked at how complaints made to British Gymnastics were handled and this again highlights that National Governing Bodies need to look beyond just sexual abuse when considering the welfare of members. By focusing on only the most serious allegations, an association can miss complaints that highlight a pattern of behaviour that endangers members’ welfare. If the correct systems are in place to oversee the complaints process, what may appear on the surface to be unrelated allegations of low-level poor practice can point to a wider issue within the culture of the sport and allow associations to root out systemic weaknesses in coaching behaviour.

The most comprehensive policies and procedures written by a National Governing Body will not, of themselves, prevent abuse from occurring. They need to be implemented and enforced and the responsibility falls on the association to ensure adherence is being cascaded throughout their club network. Historically, when considering how a National Governing Body manages its safeguarding risk, an insurer would simply look to whether policies and procedures were in place. Increasingly, though, insurers want to see evidence of how the policies and procedures are being implemented throughout the sport, how clubs are applying good practice to their day-to-day activities and how the welfare of members is being prioritised at both grass root and elite levels.

The Whyte report should be a call to action across all sport. National Governing Bodies will increasingly need to evidence not just the existence of safeguarding policies and procedures, but what they are doing to ensure their clubs are putting them into practice. This may lead to an increase in costs for many associations, as the requirement to audit practices at a local level and properly investigate complaints will no doubt increase, and additional resources will be required to do this.

Making sure that safeguarding management covers all forms of abuse and is being implemented appropriately at a local level may not be revolutionary and, in many sports, this practice is already well developed, but where this is not the case, that will need to change. Funding support previously linked to performance and results has, over recent years, been tied more closely to governance and welfare. Greater central scrutiny from funding bodies of how associations are managing their members’ welfare is only likely to increase in future cycles.