British Gymnastics’ action plan, Reform ’25, responds to the devastating Whyte review and provides a critical moment for sport reform in this country. For the sake of past, present and future gymnasts, this plan cannot be allowed to fail. For the rest of sport and society, too, it matters.
Anne Whyte KC’s extensive review heard the stories of hundreds of gymnasts who had previously suffered in silence. Rio’s brilliant Olympic bronze medallist Amy Tinkler publicly stated that she would hand her medal back if she could change the abuse she had experienced. Now is a crucial moment to shape some fundamentally different stories of sport.
The challenge for British Gymnastics is complex and relies on support and goodwill across the gymnastics world. Culture is created by everyone in the sport. There is no quick fix for changing behaviours, mindsets and relationships. Ensuring thousands of youngsters encountering gymnastics have an enriching experience, – positive while difficult, safe while challenging, whether novices or Olympians – is not easy to guarantee but is at last recognised as the only ambition worth pursuing.
British Gymnastics’ CEO, Sarah Powell, has been preparing through her first year for this moment. Effective, compassionate leadership is required to galvanise the immense collaborative effort needed for meaningful cultural change. Powell knows she has to open up the previously isolated governing body that was out of touch with gymnasts’ real lives and she must work convincingly to create trust and connection across gymnasts, coaches, volunteers, parents and club managers.
New forums have been set up to provide an open channel of communication with gymnasts, coaches and clubs. Better coach development and support is a top priority. There are new leaders, performance directors and a national welfare officer bringing fresh perspectives. I have recently been invited to join an oversight board created to scrutinise how the reforms are implemented.
As an independent adviser, my role is to challenge, bring outside perspectives and draw on my own experiences of Olympic sport as well as my current leadership and cultural change coaching in organisations. This is a rare moment where a governing body is completely committed to reform its sport and I feel compelled to help in any small way that I can.
After 10 intense and, at times, bewildering years of experiencing high-performance sport as an Olympic rower I have felt driven to learn more about shaping environments where we can thrive while exploring our full potential. It took time after retiring as an Olympic athlete and a career outside sport to reset my own radar on which values and behaviours are beyond compromise if you want to maintain integrity in the pursuit of excellence.
British Gymnastics’ action plan this week is not just vital for thousands of gymnasts, coaches and clubs around the country. It is relevant to all of us who engage in any sport, whether as participants, coaches, volunteers, parents, club managers or spectators. It is an opportunity to pause and reflect on what could and should be different. After countless culture reviews in sports ranging from judo to archery, canoeing to para-swimming and cycling to bobsleigh, there is constant chatter about which sport will be next. Football and cricket, too, are plagued. It is time to stop sweeping cultural issues under the carpet and carrying on as before with a few tweaked policies.
The wider backdrop to the need for cultural change in sport is the desperate need for change within society, too. How can we create safe and inclusive environments in our schools and hospitals, police stations and workplaces? How can we get better – as individuals and communities – at making each other’s welfare our top priority? How can we cultivate compassion even in times of stress and crisis?
One thread that resounded loudly across all the major reviews, such as the British Cycling Phelps Review (2017), the review of Australian cricket after the ball-tampering episode (2018) or the Whyte review (2022), was the importance of leadership in shaping value-based environments and developing a broader purpose for sport than the short-term pursuit of medals. Leadership driven by a strong social purpose and integrity is required to facilitate a shift in mindsets, to inspire change where there is resistance and to open up safe channels for potentially uncomfortable dialogue, where all sides are listening to each other and all experiences matter. Leadership should be about tackling what matters most, not what is easiest to measure.
I have already had good, open and challenging conversations with Powell about focusing more on impact, not just actions; on understanding that to support safe, caring environments in gyms the national governing body itself has to work out how it too needs to change culturally; and that despite the desire to deliver, there are no “right answers” to shaping a new culture – it has to be a journey of constant, collaborative learning.
This could be a game-changing moment for sport. No medal accompanied by an experience of abuse or “culture of fear” should have any place in British sport. We must deploy our formidable marginal gains expertise towards creating better ways to succeed that integrate performance and wellbeing rather than refining bike helmets and biomechanics data. Let us focus our desire to innovate on improving support for athletes to flourish on and off the field of play and offer better role models for mental, physical and emotional health to others in society.
We have had 25 years of a no-compromise approach towards medals. British Gymnastics’ leaders want to pioneer an approach of no compromise towards the safety of athletes. We must all watch closely and learn what more we can do to ensure sport is a force for good, not just a force for medals.
Cath Bishop is an Olympic rowing medallist, former diplomat, author of The Long Win, adviser to the True Athlete Project and the chair of Love Rowing, British Rowing’s charitable foundation.