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The Toxic Culture of Elite Gymnastics – A Change on the Horizon?

British Gymnastics have implemented new rules that mean that no gymnasts, under the age of 10, can be weighed. Gymnasts under 18 may only be weighed with both their consent, and the consent of a parent. If gyms break these rules they are at risk of sanctions.

This comes after the 2022 Whyte Review found ‘systemic’ physical and emotional abuse issues within British Gymnastics. The review was co-commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England_ and found that welfare was largely ignored in the culture of elite gymnastics. The Review had more than 400 submissions, with more than 40% describing physically abusive behaviour towards gymnasts by coaches. The review found that athletes were forced to train on injuries, not permitted to use the toilet, sworn at, and had their bags searched for food, the BBC has found.

"Weighing was used as a punishment," former gymnast Eloise Jotischky told the BBC.

Jotischky has been the only gymnast to win a civil case against British Gymnastics concerning abuse, she faced from coach Andrew Griffiths. Griffiths is no longer allowed to coach, after the inappropriate weight management tactics he used on Jotischky, and others were revealed.

British Gymnastics said the new policy of banned weighing hopes "to prevent inappropriate practices and prevent potential areas of concern around weighing, due to some of the related psychological distress and risks of the development of mental health problems such as eating disorders/disordered eating, anxiety, and depression" the BBC reported.

A study of 147 competitive gymnasts and 122 recreational gymnasts found that 16.3% of the former and 7.4% of the latter indicated disordered eating behaviour. The pressure put on weight by coaches was a cause for the disordered eating at the competitive level. Both categories of gymnast were affected by appearance concerns and performance demands.

The study outlined how weight control is central to gymnastics, as gymnasts must lift their own body weight against gravity. This naturally leads to the desire for a low body weight, combined with muscle strength and power. Low body weight is often considered beneficial for technique, as it is easier to increase the power-to-weight ratio. It is easy to see how problems can develop in an environment that idolises a low weight and a certain body aesthetic.

Historically, there has been little awareness of eating disorders in sports like gymnastics, due to circulating beliefs that thinness was directly linked to success and that losing weight would lead to an improvement in performance. This mindset has prevailed_ and led to a toxic culture of aesthetic perfectionism.

UK Sport is clear in their guidance that coaches should maintain the relationship between weight and athletic performance is complex. They advise that standards of weight or body fat should not be imposed on athletes.

Competitive performance sport requires an athlete to be meticulously aware of their own diet, to enhance their performance. In their guideline framework for practitioners working with high performance athletes, UK Sport note how the eating patterns adopted by athletes are often extreme, and can appear overly strict or disordered to the non-athlete. Behaviours can subtly develop into disordered eating, perceived as ‘normal,’ as they are a mere escalation of the athlete’s diet, do not yet fit the criteria for an eating disorder. The criteria are different for each eating disorder but includes a weight at 85% or less than expected, and intense fear of weight gain.

Beat believe that currently around 1.25 million people in the UK are living with an eating disorder. In competitive athletes, the levels are far higher, and it is clear that the culture has to change.

There are serious risks for athletes who attempt to reduce their weight for prolonged periods through disordered eating. These include problems with menstruation, bone density, the ability to train, and micro-nutrient intake that could mean deficiencies. Athletes may have to be medically excluded from training for their own safety or may be declared unfit to compete due to medical issues such as fainting, dizziness, and non-healing injuries.

While most of the abuse allegations in the Whyte Review focused on physical and emotional abuse, there were also 30 sexual abuse allegations made. These findings are eerily reminiscent of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor who was jailed for more than 300 years for sexually abusing children and possessing child pornography.

Sky News heard from Gymnasts for Change, a group of athletes that campaigns for a safer sport. It said: "The new safeguarding policies are meaningless without a robust welfare, investigation and complaints system that delivers resolutions on behalf of complainants. "Since the publication of the Whyte Review in June 2022, no coaches have been banned via the Independent Complaints Process, a process that was set up by BG [British Gymnastics] to investigate serious complaints from the Whyte Review.”

It is clear that a change in culture is necessary to promote a healthy environment in elite gymnastics, which prioritises athlete wellbeing over success at any cost.

"Women line up for gymnastics" by bryangeek is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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