UK sport needs independent welfare body, insists British Gymnastics chair

 UK sport needs independent welfare body, insists British Gymnastics chair
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The chair of British Gymnastics has called on the government to establish an independent welfare body to protect athletes across all sports – and to ensure governing bodies no longer face significant costs dealing with safeguarding cases.

In a notable intervention, Mike Darcey said that while the benefits of playing sport were clear, the number of abuse allegations across multiple sports in recent years – including British Cycling, British Swimming, British Bobsleigh and British Athletics – showed the current system often left complainants unhappy and in limbo while they waited for justice.

It’s time we bit the bullet. It’s time for the government to accept that it is time for action. We need, as a nation, to show that we care as much about athlete welfare as we do about the medal table.

Darcey said he envisioned the new body as being like UK Anti-Doping – which would not only include investigators, safeguarding experts and adjudicators but also ensure that best safe sport practice was promoted across British sport.

Such a body would also have clear economies of scale. Instead of asking 40 different Olympic sports to run their own systems we could have one centralised body as a centre of excellence. We would also take the conflict of interest out of the system, and everybody would rightly have much more confidence in the outcome.

Darcey said that even though British Gymnastics was now spending more than £1m a year on welfare and safeguarding in the wake of the Whyte Review – which found horrifying cases of bullying, abuse and discrimination – it was still struggling to deal with all the 1,326 concerns raised with its welfare and safe sport team since July 2020.

“It’s hard because we have a very substantial backlog, and complaints are running at an elevated level because there’s much greater awareness and willingness to speak out, which is good,” he said. “But I look at how much progress we’re making, and I still think the athletes and everybody involved deserves better than I think we can possibly do.”

Darcey said that as things stood there were at least three things wrong with the current approach. First, British Gymnastics was “ill‑equipped to handle these sorts of cases” as it did not have the expertise or resources to run a large-scale semi-judicial process. Second, complainants often had to wait too long for justice. And third, as British Gymnastics is an investigator, judge and jury, one side or the other often thought it must be biased.

“Even if we had far more resources, I’m not sure we could ever escape from the fact that as a national governing body we sit in the middle, make the rules, and we’re investigator, judge and jury,” he said. “I think that’s a pretty invidious place for any NGB to find themselves.”

British Gymnastics is not the only body to face mounting safeguarding costs. Last year British Athletics spent £600,000 on such cases and is fighting off bankruptcy. “Sports can get themselves into a tricky position where they either spend so much money on this that you put the financial wellbeing of the NGB in jeopardy, or you have to cut back on other areas,” Darcey said. “So it’s a series of unhappy choices, none of which are great.”

This is not the first time such an independent body has been called for, with a widely praised report by Tanni Grey-Thompson in 2017 making a similar recommendation. However, as Darcey pointed out, little has happened since then. “But we want young athletes and parents to have confidence that the sports that they’re sending their kids off to participate in are safe places, and that if something goes wrong it will be dealt with appropriately,” he said.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport did not directly comment on Darcey’s calls. But in a statement it said it remained “committed to ensuring sport is as safe as possible for everyone, and will continue to work with the sector to strengthen the system where needed”.

Photo: British Gymnastics
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