Including children’s perspectives: The missing link in ‘safe sport’

Dr Melanie Lang

Gymnast practicing on the balance beam.

British Gymnastics has had a bruising few years: a series of high-profile media disclosures from athletes detailing emotional and physical abuse, followed by an independent review into mistreatment and how the sport handled safeguarding complaints. Anne Whyte QC, who led the review, released her highly critical report over summer. It catalogued harrowing incidents of athletes as young as 6 being fat shamed, denied food and water, forced to train while injured, slapped, and sat on. Such abuse was borne of “inappropriate coaching techniques” that had “been allowed to flourish within the sport at all levels for decades”. The review concluded that “gymnast wellbeing and welfare has not been at the centre of British Gymnastics’ culture”. The organisation has since apologised and vowed to change.

It took a major step in this journey recently, releasing an action plan for change. New CEO Sarah Powell said the plan, which is called Reform ’25, will “ensure that gymnastics provides a safe, positive, and fair experience for all by the year 2025”. It is certainly comprehensive – Reform ’25 comprises 40 related action points covering all the recommendations from the Whyte Review.

Ensuring athletes’ perspectives are incorporated in how gymnastics is run features heavily in the Reform ’25 action plan: British Gymnastics has created three new Representative and Advisory Groups, including one for gymnasts – the Gymnasts’ Advisory Group – to advise on policy and initiatives and ensure developments are “fully informed, relevant, and connected to all involved”. For the first time, they’ve also appointed an athlete representative to the British Gymnastics Board.

These are undoubtedly positive steps. The inclusion of athletes’ voices in decision-making in sport is recognised as central to ensuring what is commonly referred to as ‘safe sport’. For sports such as gymnastics, where roughly 75% of participants are under 12 years old, this must include listening to and acting on children’s opinions. Yet even adult athletes’ perspectives are traditionally ignored in sport, and initiatives aimed at promoting children’s right to influence matters that affect them – a key plank of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – are almost non-existent in sport. As such, incorporating children’s voices is the missing link in most current strategies to safeguard children and realise their rights in this field.

It is not that surprising, therefore, that the Reform ’25 action plan doesn’t refer specifically to including current child gymnasts’ views on ‘safe sport’, or that the new Gymnasts Advisory Board comprises no-one aged under 18 (the mean average age of members is mid-to-high 20s).

Involving children alongside older athletes in decision-making in sport is central to democratising sport and realising safe and inclusive sporting environments. Genuine participation, which involves not only listening to children but acting on what they say, can break down power imbalances, empower athletes, and create innovative, more open, and more athlete-centred sporting spaces. I understand British Gymnastics is now working to include children’s voices. This is an opportunity for British Gymnastics to set a new standard for ‘safe sport’ by including children’s perspectives. Only time will tell if they’re successful.

Dr Melanie Lang is Reader in Social Sciences and Co-director of the Centre for Safeguarding and Protection in Sport at Edge Hill University

You may also be interested in watching an interview recorded earlier this year by Mel and Prof Jo Crotty, Director of ISR, with advocate Rachael Denhollander. Rachael was the first athlete to go public with allegations against USA Gymnastics coach, Larry Nassar. He is now serving an effective life sentence in jail for his crimes.

Leave a Reply