Mistreatment of gymnasts: bullying which has far reaching consequences. Investigation is key to getting to the heart of the problem

If you know me, you know that I am a gymnastics mum to two budding gymnasts, so you won’t be surprised that I have been following the news of mistreatment of gymnasts with great interest. If you have not been following this story, the essence of it is that there have been complaints from gymnasts about a culture of fear and emotional and mental abuse. Some of the examples given were about being told they were fat, being forced to compete or train with injuries or being sat on until they were flat on the floor when sitting in splits. For obvious reasons this is concerning.

Gymnastics is about perfection and therefore not a forgiving sport, but this does not give reason for coaches to mistreat their gymnasts for best results and competing power, this to me is bullying. Bullying is the use of force, coercion or threat, to abuse, aggressively dominate or intimidate. The behaviour is repeated and habitual.

While I am aware that historically gymnasts were treated this way (and I know this from previous gymnasts), I do not consider this normal, nor do I condone it – now or then. If we look at the definition of bullying, the behaviour described by the gymnasts is exactly that, and it needs to stop. The consequences of treating gymnasts in this way has been long-term mental health conditions, eating disorders, dropping out of the sport, reputational risk. This is why I am glad that they have finally spoken, but I do wonder why it has taken so long. Was this due to fear of being dropped from the squad, club or coach, fear of not being able to compete, being pushed harder than they could cope with? What strikes me is that whether you are in the workplace or not, the fear of raising issues is real and we are not providing safe places for individuals to raise their concerns because of how they have been handled in the past (or perceived to have been).  

British gymnastics have quite rightly chosen to step away from the investigation to allow for a completely independent review of the situation and get to the heart of the problem. Was this the right choice? 100%, because it allows for a non-biased, impartial investigation based on evidence and clear facts, and I would expect nothing less. An independent party will have no prior knowledge of the people involved or the concerns raised, which gives a sense of relief to those raising a complaint as they often feel that an internal person will not be impartial. Independence therefore allows them to air their concerns in a safe place without consequence.

There have been complaints about the length of time the investigation is taking, with the first complaint having been made in December 2019. A large-scale investigation such as this would take long, especially to ensure all the facts are investigated and appropriate recommendations made. The common misconception is that an investigation does not take long, when in fact if you do it thoroughly, it takes time, attention and detail. I’m following this with great interest and look forward to seeing the findings and recommended actions.

As a workplace investigator I would expect the same principle to apply when investigating a case of bullying and harassment. While some mistreatment, bullying or harassment can be obvious, a lot of it is subtle and non-verbal and therefore it is important to investigate the facts, how it has made the individual feel and the consequences of such behaviour, to get a clear understanding of the wider issue. Following this, I would expect to make recommendations based on my findings about how this behaviour can be prevented and creating an awareness of the wider issue.

So, I guess the moral of the story here is that no one, no industry is beyond an independent investigation into mistreatment, bullying or harassment and we need to start treating people as humans and be kind.

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