Shortly after the release of Athlete A on Netflix, British Gymnastics has undergone an awakening in response to the documentary. It started with British gymnasts releasing a series of coordinated posts on Twitter under the hashtag #gymnastalliance where they jointly condemned abuse within their sport. At least a dozen high profile British gymnasts expressed support for #gymnastalliance.
It eventually grew into a report from ITV where two gymnasts, Catherine Lyons and Lisa Mason provided detailed examples of abuse allegations. Catherine Lyons was a renowned junior prospect who had success in various junior competitions while Lisa Mason was a member of Britain’s 2000 Olympic team. Some of the allegations are incredibly disturbing.
Lyons alleged that at one point, she was starved for a week and then couldn’t keep food down after she transitioned back to normal eating habits. She cited frequent mental abuse and on one occasion, the behavior rose to the level of physical abuse where she was struck with a stick. That is just the beginning of a lengthy list of allegations that spans dozens of different incidents, each of which are as disturbing as the last. I highly recommend you read the ITV article and click on every video which details another story.
Mason also came forward with stories of her own personal experiences with abuse, but also indicted that there remains an even larger number of allegations that have yet to be told. According to Mason, this is only the tip of the iceberg as there are a number of active gymnasts who also have stories of abusive coaching practices, but haven’t come forward out of fear that they will suffer retaliation for speaking out. Most notably, the fear being intentionally left off the 2021 Olympic team.
“They’re going to be ready when they’re ready to speak out but there are a lot of stories from current gymnasts that are ready to go, but now is not the right time.”
Despite these fears of retaliation, Becky and Ellie Downie are two active gymnasts who have been incredibly vocal in supporting #gymnastalliance. These are two of the most widely known gymnasts in British WAG. They have come to understand that they have a large platform, and are using that platform to advocate for the well-being of future gymnasts who come up the ranks. The Downie sisters are by no means the only British gymnasts doing this, but their presence is significant and it takes courage for a gymnast with a future Olympic spot on the line to make this stand. The Downie sisters are gymnasts everyone should stan.
Mason also went into great detail of coaches utilizing pain medication to an extreme extent. Overuse of pain medication has long been one of my biggest concerns of problems that exist within the sport. The high injury rate of gymnastics and its reputation for athlete mistreatment seem like a recipe for widespread abuse of pain medication. But specific allegations of overusing pain medication have been something of a rarity compared to other types of abuses that are alleged on a far more frequent basis.
Mason has given one of the most detailed accounts of pain medication being over emphasized in gymnastics that I have come across. It is my hope that more attention is given to examining the role of pain medication in gymnastics. We don’t know if pain medication is being abused on a wide scale basis within elite gymnastics, but common sense dictates that this could be the case. Mason has given us an opportunity to have a larger conversation on that issue.
Furthermore, the recent developments in British gymnastics has allowed the impact of the Nassar scandal to cross the Atlantic and force other countries to start having serious conversations on the problems that exist within their own national programs. There are a number of sports administrators who want to dismiss the lessons that can be learned from the Nassar scandal and treat the whole affair as an American problem that could only happen in America. It is easier for sports administrators to do that than confront the reality that emotional, physical, and sexual abuse is endemic in their governing bodies as well.
But thanks to a growing number of courageous British gymnasts, that conversation is now being had.