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Gymnasts' legal claim over alleged abuse may be resolved without going to court

Gymnasts' legal claim over alleged abuse may be resolved without going to court
© Reuters
A letter before action was initially sent in February.

A legal claim from a group of gymnasts who allege systemic physical and psychological abuse could be resolved without going to court.

A letter before action was sent to British Gymnastics in February on behalf of 17 former gymnasts, including three who had competed at the Olympic Games.

By March 25 a further 20 gymnasts had been added to the claim, with the law firm representing them, Hausfeld, saying the governing body needed to provide a substantive response by June 19 or it would pursue the matter through the courts.

On the eve of the deadline, it appears there has been a small breakthrough.

"We've begun a dialogue with British Gymnastics about alternative ways to resolve our claims outside of the court process," said a spokesperson for the Gymnasts For Change group, which is supporting the claimants and is seeking wider reform in the sport.

"That dialogue is in its early stages but ongoing. Currently there is some distance between our minimum requirements and BG's proposals."

British Gymnastics announced the appointment of its new chief executive Sarah Powell earlier on Friday. Her predecessor Jane Allen stepped down in October last year amid allegations of an abusive culture within the sport.

The spokesperson for Gymnasts For Change added: "We welcome the news that a new CEO has been appointed and are hopeful that we can collaborate with British Gymnastics to find a workable solution; however, we're still prepared to take action through the courts should we not secure meaningful engagement with the individual claims and the wider cultural reform needed in the sport."

British Gymnastics issued its own statement, which read: "We remain totally committed to talking to and learning from members of our community, including current and former gymnasts and coaches, to better understand their perspective on changes we can make and lessons we can learn. There is a clear desire for us all to work together to do that.

"Any gymnast who considers that they have been mistreated must be heard and we are fully open to anyone who wishes to discuss their experiences and/or make recommendations for positive changes or reforms. We need to learn from all experiences and it's important for everyone involved in the sport that we create the future together."

One of the claimants, Claire Heafford, told the PA news agency in February that coming out of the club gymnastics environment was like "leaving a cult".

"There was physical abuse, pushing and slapping," she said.

"Despite training six hours a day we were told every day that we hadn't done well enough, we weren't trying hard enough, they were ashamed of us.

"These belittling, humiliating things were shouted at us on a daily basis."

She said her experiences in gymnastics had led to feelings of worthlessness in later life.

Claire Heafford pictured during her gymnastics career
Claire Heafford pictured during her gymnastics career (Handout from Claire Heafford/PA)

Separate to the legal claim, Anne Whyte QC is working on a review of abuse and bullying allegations within the sport.

Almost 400 submissions are being considered by the review, with 39 of them so potentially serious they have been referred to the relevant statutory authorities.

An interim report by review leader Whyte published in March said over 90 clubs and 100 coaches had been identified among the submissions, 126 of which were provided by current and former gymnasts. She confirmed that "many" but by no means all of the allegations relate to the elite level of the sport.

The final draft of her report is expected to be published around August.

The recommendations of the Whyte Review will help shape the whole of Olympic and Paralympic sport's approach to integrity and athlete welfare, UK Sport chief executive Sally Munday has said.

Munday is determined to move away from the "win at all costs" mentality and focus instead on "winning well".

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