Seventeen former British gymnasts, including three Olympians, have notified British Gymnastics of their intention to take legal action, alleging coaches subjected them to “systemic physical and psychological abuse,” according to a statement from their law firm Hausfeld.
“This is a landmark moment in our campaign for justice,” Claire Heafford, a former elite gymnast and one of the 17 claimants, said in the statement.
“This is not and has never been about a few bad apples, this is about decades of systemic abuse, encouraged and covered up by those at the top.
“The hopes and dreams of countless children and young adults of competing as professional gymnasts have been destroyed and their love for the sport is now shrouded in fear and suffering. My heart goes out to everyone who has felt this pain and have not yet spoken out – we want you to know that we are here, fighting on your side.”
In a statement sent to CNN, British Gymnastics said: “We took receipt of the Letter Before Action on the afternoon of 25th February. It would not be appropriate or fair to all parties for us to make any comment until we have had the opportunity for it to be fully considered. “
The claimants, who are all women, allege the abuse took place at clubs across the United Kingdom, all of which were affiliated with British Gymnastics, according to the statement from Hausfeld.
The claimants, who were between the ages of six and 23 at the time, allege physical abuse included “inappropriate use of physical force by coaches against gymnasts constituting physical assault,” pressure on gymnasts to continue training while injured and “abusive and harmful coaching techniques which have no justification in science or theory,” as detailed in the statement.
The Letter Before Action cites “consistent reports of coaches slapping, pushing, and using physical force to reprimand, punish, stretch, and/or ‘correct’ gymnasts during training.”
The claimants also allege coaches “excessively controlled” gymnasts’ diets and engaged in “widespread bullying and intimidation behaviour” against gymnasts and parents.
“The focus on weight served to create a culture of ‘body shaming’ for gymnasts,” states the Letter Before Action sent to British Gymnastics.
The Hausfeld statement says in nearly all cases, the alleged abuse has left gymnasts with lasting psychological and physical damage, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The letter follows the launching of a pressure campaign called Gymnasts for Change by Heafford and Olympic gymnast Jennifer Pinches in 2020.
“For too long we have seen British Gymnastics prioritise podiums over people, which has led to untold damage to the lives of young people,” Pinches said in the Hausfeld statement.
“It is a heart-breaking truth to face, knowing the level of abuse that we and so many others were subjected to. This is just the beginning of the sweeping changes that we are demanding, and the justice that we will fight for.”
In December, the CEO of British Gymnastics, Jane Allen, retired amid an independent inquiry into allegations of abuse in the sport.
Allen lauded the gymnasts who had spoken out about abuse as “very brave” in an October interview with the BBC and acknowledged the organization had “‘fallen short’ in protecting its athletes.”