British Olympians decry abuse in gymnastics, say they were called 'mentally weak' for questioning tactics
Sisters speak out after being pressured to lose weight and overtrain
British Olympians Becky and Ellie Downie say they've suffered from abusive behaviour in gymnastics training for many years, adding their voices to a growing number of gymnasts coming forward with similar complaints.
The sisters said coaches pressured them to lose weight and overtrain, which took mental and physical tolls. They were inspired to tell their story after former teammates did the same.
"Speaking out is something we've both felt we really needed to do for a long time now, but in truth, we've been afraid to do so," they wrote in a letter posted Thursday on their respective Twitter accounts.
Our Story <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/GymnastAlliance?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#GymnastAlliance</a> <a href="https://t.co/ay24kBqo8Z">pic.twitter.com/ay24kBqo8Z</a>—@Bdownie
Both women represented Britain in the 2016 Olympic Games but their success has come at a high price, they said, describing the normalization of abusive behaviour.
Twenty-eight-year-old Becky said she was called "mentally weak" for questioning her training regimen in 2018. She then injured her ankle in "a direct consequence of the unsafe training." Her 20-year-old sister said a nutritionist required her to send daily pictures of herself wearing just underwear to prove she wasn't gaining weight. She was 14 years old at that time.
"This never-ending focus on my weight has left deep scars which will never be healed, I suspect," Ellie wrote.
While travelling abroad with the national team, they lived in fear of coaches searching their bags for food.
"To this day we still hide food for the fear of it being found," Ellie wrote.
'Culture of fear' promotes silence
British Gymnastics CEO Jane Allen this week announced an independent review of claims of mistreatment. She said the British Gymnastics Integrity Unit already exists to investigate allegations and that there are welfare officers around the country.
"However, it is clear that gymnasts did not feel they could raise their concerns to British Gymnastics and it is vital that an independent review helps us better understand why, so we can remove any barriers as quickly as possible," Allen said.
"There is nothing more important for British Gymnastics than the welfare of our gymnasts at every level of our sport and we will continually strive to create a culture where people feel they can raise any concerns that they may have," she added.
However, three-time Olympian Louis Smith said British Gymnastics must do a better job of encouraging athletes to raise concerns without fear of repercussions. The 31-year-old Smith, who has won four Olympic medals, said there's a "culture of fear" that prevents gymnasts from speaking out.
"I owe it to the people that are wanting to come out but are too nervous, perhaps this might help," Smith said in a video posted on his Instagram account.
'This is a gymnastics culture problem'
Becky Downie, who also competed in the 2008 Olympic Games, said conditions have improved since her 2018 injury.
"We're also no longer routinely weighed and are encouraged to eat properly to aid our performance and recovery," she wrote. "This culture change has encouraged us to continue using our voice as a tool for good, as we've seen the positive effects of doing so."
The sisters said it's not just a British problem.
"And what's clear from speaking to many different gymnasts from all over the world, this is a gymnastics culture problem, as opposed to just a national one," they wrote.
In the United States, women came forward against Larry Nassar, the osteopathic physician who in his 29 years as the USA Gymnastics women's team's doctor used medical treatment as a guise for molesting hundreds of young athletes. He was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison in 2018