‘I was terrified to put on weight’ – the ‘culture of fear’ in British gymnastics

Nicole Pavier says an eating disorder still “plagues” her life. A former England gymnast, she says she was weighed every day during her career.

Pavier, 24, told BBC Sport how she developed bulimia when she was 14 and that she retired three years later after becoming “a shell of a person”.

She is one of several gymnasts to speak to BBC Sport about what they called a “culture of fear” within the “mentally and emotionally abusive” sport of gymnastics.

British Gymnastics has announced an independent review will take place following allegations of mistreatment from a number of athletes in recent days.

“It is clear that gymnasts did not feel they could raise their concerns to British Gymnastics and it is vital that an independent review helps us better understand why so we can remove any barriers as quickly as possible,” said chief executive Jane Allen.

Pavier said she became “terrified” she would put on weight, and would find “mechanisms” to try to prevent her from doing so.

“Being an adult now, you really realise how much it has affected you, from the eating disorders, the chronic pain, waking up having nightmares every night, never feeling good enough,” Pavier said.

“It has such a long-term implication.”

She alleges gymnasts were weighed twice a day sometimes, and claims her coach, Claire Barbieri, would “discuss people’s weights in front of the whole group” and display their weights on a whiteboard.

Barbieri told BBC Sport she has “never, to date, ever had any formal complaint raised against me by a gymnast”.

“I acknowledge that the regime for training elite gymnasts can at times be a tough one,” she said in a statement. “However, throughout my career I have followed British Gymnastics best practice and I continue to treat the welfare of the gymnasts I coach as my top priority.”

She added: “In line with standard practice at the time, the club had a system of weighing and measuring the elite gymnasts daily. Following advice from the GB medical team this was reduced to twice a week.

“I am fully aware of the risks of eating disorders amongst gymnasts and ensured that professional advice was obtained and followed where potential issues had been flagged.

“Although a whiteboard was used initially, I acknowledged some gymnasts’ concerns with this and changed the practice – introducing a system where the gymnasts had more privacy and kept their own records.”

British Gymnastics’ independent review will be conducted by Jane Mulcahy QC.

Allen said: “The behaviours we have heard about in recent days are completely contrary to our standards of safe coaching and have no place in our sport. The British Gymnastics integrity unit is set up to investigate all allegations when reported or identified by our national network of club and regional welfare officers.

“There is nothing more important for British Gymnastics than the welfare of our gymnasts at every level of our sport and we will continually strive to create a culture where people feel they can raise any concerns that they may have.”

Pavier says she was 21 when she gained control of her eating disorder, but admits she is still “picking up the pieces”.

“I still hate the way I look, I still feel like I’m overweight, I still wake up and don’t want to eat breakfast some days or won’t eat anything,” she says.

“There is no day where I’ll wake up and look in the mirror and be happy with what I see.”

Athletes ‘sat on and made to sit in cupboards’

BBC Sport also heard testimonies from several other gymnasts – at all levels of the sport, who had several different coaches and trained at several different clubs – as well as some parents.

From their testimonies, BBC Sport has learned how some gymnasts were allegedly:

  • Made to sit in store cupboards if they cried or refused to perform a skill in training;
  • Hit by one coach on the legs with a wooden stick;
  • Sat on if they were not fully on the ground while performing the splits.

It was claimed one coach made their gymnasts do three hours of conditioning after seeing some of them eating chips.

Another coach is said to have made theirs line up and watch as they ordered cleaners to search through bins to find discarded snack wrappers.

Other gymnasts also said they trained through injuries. A parent told BBC Sport her daughter broke her wrist during training. As soon as her daughter was out of a splint, she says she was made to use the wrist in moves, once causing her so much pain she vomited.

One gymnast says she broke a rib in training but chose not tell her coach, with the injury eventually causing a punctured lung that prevented her competing and training for a year.

Many of the gymnasts BBC Sport spoke to say they still suffer psychological effects, including anxiety and depression, for which some remain on medication and others are receiving therapy.

One says she continues to have night terrors, years after retiring, while a parent told of young gymnasts she knew of whose hair had fallen out because of the stress they felt.

Coaches would frequently “scream” at gymnasts and their parents, with one parent saying they had been “groomed” as well as their children, who they knew would be “punished” if training methods were not accepted.

Many of the athletes spoken to said they would not want any children they may have in the future to do gymnastics.

British Gymnastics declined to comment on any individual cases but told BBC Sport in a statement: “British Gymnastics condemns any behaviour which is harmful to the wellbeing of our gymnasts. Such behaviours are completely contrary to our standards of safe coaching.

“Our integrity unit investigates all allegations reported to us or identified by our national network of club welfare officers and takes disciplinary action to prevent recurrence.

“We have worked particularly hard in recent years to ensure that our athlete and coaching culture is transparent, fair and inclusive.

“British Gymnastics is reaching out to any gymnast, either current or past, that has concerns around specific incidents or behaviours and encourages them to contact our integrity unit.”

‘We want to show support’

Last week, British former gymnast Jennifer Pinches, who competed at the London 2012 Olympics, reached out to fellow gymnasts on social media.

“We wanted to come together and just show our support for anyone that has been mistreated,” the 26-year-old told BBC Sport.

“It’s about gymnasts and a support network coming together.

“Unfortunately, certain types of behaviour have become a bit normalised in gymnastics, unacceptable behaviour – and it’s not just Britain, it’s across the world.

“There’s a better way, we know that, so we want to take a stand against any kind of damaging behaviour and support those who have experienced mistreatment. We want a safe happy and healthy environment for gymnasts.”


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