Image; Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Image; Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 - Gymnastics, Downie

Gymnastics: Downie sisters describe ‘environment of fear’

Abuse in Team GB gymnastics has become “completely normalised” say world championship medallists, Ellie and Becky Downie. The sisters, who are viewed as Team GB’s strongest contenders for medals at the Tokyo Olympics, have joined a growing number of British gymnasts speaking out against maltreatment in the sport.

The Downie sisters described constant pressure regarding their weight and dedication, calling Team GB training “an environment of fear and mental abuse”. Both highlighted that the young age at which they were subjected to both physical and mental abuse ensured that they “certainly didn’t realise how wrong it was at the time.”

Becky Downie stressed that the toll the abuse took on her body was physical, as well as mental. Gruelling over-training and restrictive diets drove her “to the point of physical breakdown”. Her recollections of abusive coaching have been echoed by her sister, Ellie, who recalled a coach saying that she “hoped the painkillers [she] was holding for an injury were diet pills.”

I was told by a nutritionist to provide food diaries of everything

– Ellie Downie

Ellie described feeling shame about her weight and said she had been told to diet consistently, since the age of 14. “At one time at this age, again after being told I was too heavy” she said, “I was told by a nutritionist to provide food diaries of everything that entered my mouth and send daily pictures of me in my underwear to ensure I wasn’t lying.”

The Downie sisters explained that they had only begun to understand the impact of their abusive training “in recent years”, at which point they attempted to speak up. However, recollecting attempting to speak up about her training at a national camp in 2018, Becky said: “I was shot down, called ‘mentally weak’, and told the injury pain levels I was experiencing were in my head.”

In their statement, they recognised that some positive changes were beginning to be made, observing that they had not been routinely weighed since 2018. However, they called for more significant change, to ensure zero tolerance for abusive training in British gymnastics: “While exact experiences obviously vary… for too long, the health and wellbeing of young girls has been of secondary importance to a dated, cruel, and – we’d argue – often ineffective culture within women’s gymnastics training.”

My coach put me on the bars until my hands ripped and bled

– Lisa Mason

The claims of Ellie and Becky Downie have backed up accusations from several other British Olympic gymnasts, including Francesca Fox and Lisa Mason. Fox claimed that she was repeatedly subjected to verbal abuse regarding her weight. She revealed that, after constantly being told she was “fat” and “looked like a hippo”, she was weighing herself ten times a day.

Meanwhile, Mason said: “My coach put me on the bars until my hands ripped and bled. My hands would then be pulled down and surgical spirit would be poured all over them. I would also have AstroTurf put under the bars so I would burn my feet if I didn’t keep them up. But everyone else is going through it, so you think it’s normal.”

Mason explained that fears over being punished in their career have consistently held gymnasts back from publicly exposing the abuse within the sport: “We don’t want to rock the boat and upset the people who make those decisions,” she said, in reference to the upcoming Tokyo Olympic games.

There is absolutely no place for any sort of bullying or abuse in sport

– UK Sport

However, it appears that the bravery of the first few gymnasts in speaking out about their experiences is now encouraging many more to come forward with their own experiences of abuse in training. Whilst British Gymnastics said it had no comment at this stage, it has launched an independent inquiry into abuse allegations.

UK Sport, which has given British gymnastics £16 million in funding since 2017, did issue a statement in response to all of the accusations: “These allegations relating to the treatment of young athletes within gymnastics are shocking and upsetting,” it said.

“There is absolutely no place for any sort of bullying or abuse in sport and anyone responsible for such behaviour must be held accountable, with support offered to those affected.” The funding body is also conducting its own investigation into the claims.

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