Alan Hubbard

The only sporting encouragement I received as a schoolboy practising gymnastics a zillion years ago came from a PE teacher, a grizzly bear of a man named Martindale, a former Army Sergeant Major who used to whack you on the backside with a plimsoll as you attempted to leap the vaulting horse.

It was his idea of coaching. In these more enlightened days that would be construed as bullying. Probably rightly so.

I recalled dear old Mr Martindale in the light of the recent escalating allegations of bullying, and other forms of misconduct in the world of gymnastics, a sport which is by no means alone in squirming under the spotlight because of the suspected misbehaviour of some of its dodgy coaches. 

But it is gymnastics which is currently bearing the brunt of such disturbing stories.

British Gymnastics - both the sport and the governing body - has become engulfed by scandal following the mounting allegations of bullying and abuse at both club and national level.

Several gymnasts have come forward detailing their experiences of mistreatments, including Olympians Becky and Ellie Downie, who claimed abusive behaviour in gymnastics is now "completely normalised."

And the UK’s top male gymnast, 24-year-old Rio Olympics bronze medallist Nile Wilson has claimed British gymnasts continue to be "treated like pieces of meat" and that a "culture of abuse" exists within the sport both at club and national level.

"It’s emotional manipulation, being pushed through physical pain was certainly something I experienced," he said.

"The gymnasts are still, in my opinion, treated like pieces of meat.

"I would say that I was abused. But we wanted to win Olympic medals – the governing body wanted to win Olympic medals, the coaches wanted to win Olympic medals."

Now Wilson has left his Leeds-based club and says he fears that speaking out may jeopardise his chances of being selected for next year’s Olympics in Tokyo, postponed due to coronavirus.

An independent review into the sport has been launched following public complaints from gymnasts from all ages and levels.

Rio 2016 Olympic medallist Nile Wilson claims "a culture of abuse" exists within the sport at both club and national level ©Getty Images
Rio 2016 Olympic medallist Nile Wilson claims "a culture of abuse" exists within the sport at both club and national level ©Getty Images

British Gymnastics has stepped aside from the review into allegations of widespread mistreatment in the sport to "remove any doubt" over the "integrity or independence" of the process.

UK Sport and Sport England will now co-commission the independent review aimed at "bringing about positive change."

British Gymnastics chief executive Jane Allen said the decision was made to "retain the trust of the gymnastics community.

"Our priority is to learn the lessons and ensure the welfare of all those within gymnastics."

According to the BBC, British Gymnastics said any mistreatment of gymnasts is "inexcusable at any level" and it is vital that concerns are made public.

A confidential helpline is also being set up for British gymnasts who say they have suffered bullying or abuse.

The service, run jointly by the British Athletes Commission (BAC) and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), comes amid widespread allegations in the sport.

The dedicated helpline will be "a safe place for athletes to go to", BAC Board member Peter Crowther told BBC Sport.

"We will then get each of these athletes the respective support they need. We have already had inquiries.

"It was gut-wrenching to see these utterly disgraceful allegations be made public and concerning not just athletes, but young children.

"This is likely to be one of the more in-depth and broad-ranging situations we've faced, but unfortunately we've dealt with many situations of alleged abuse across many sports."

Last week, Olympic medallist Beth Tweddle said "there is no place for bullying or abuse in the sport that I love", and urged all gymnasts to share their feelings.

Olympic medallist Beth Tweddle has called on all gymnasts to speak out if they feel they have been mistreated ©Getty Images
Olympic medallist Beth Tweddle has called on all gymnasts to speak out if they feel they have been mistreated ©Getty Images

Meanwhile, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said the organisation takes the allegations of emotional and physical abuse in British Gymnastics "very, very seriously."

"These cases are clearly against everything we stand for and therefore we will do everything we can with regard to prevention," he said.

"But also to then follow up on cases if they should come under our jurisdiction."

British Gymnastics is the latest governing body to be engulfed in an athlete welfare crisis since Rio 2016.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who led a duty of care review in 2017, called for her recommendations of a sports ombudsman and independent funding of the BAC to now be implemented.

"Ultimately, I don't think enough has been done," said the cross-bench peer and 11-time Paralympic gold medallist.

"We do need to look at a massive cultural change.

"I don't think applying duty of care to anyone in the system means less medals, it just means that we help people survive the system in the best way they can."

Team GB Chef de Mission Mark England says the British Olympic Association is "alarmed" by the allegations of widespread mistreatment.

"British Gymnastics took a very important step to announce an independent review," England said.

"It's important athletes have a voice."

Abuse of athletes by officials appears to be widespread.

Dame Tanni-Grey Thompson, who led a duty of care review in 2017 says she does not believe enough has been done to support athletes ©Getty Images
Dame Tanni-Grey Thompson, who led a duty of care review in 2017 says she does not believe enough has been done to support athletes ©Getty Images

In the USA a team doctor has been jailed for sexual misconduct with young gymnasts as has a youth football coach in Britain for sexual assault on a number of players at various clubs, most notably Chelsea and Crewe.

From a personal viewpoint I have always been sceptical about the overuse of coaching and psychology in sport, believing that as far as individuals are concerned talent will usually emerge without artificial assistance.

Did the likes of George Best, Paul Gascoigne, Ronaldo, Gary Sobers and Ian Botham benefit from being told how to play their game? I have my doubts. It may be different in some team sports of course. 

Although I do remember how, back at the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville in France, the British four man bob team led by Mark Tout were in pole position overnight. 

The squad and the BOA were happy for them to be interviewed but the sports psychologist in attendance demurred, insisting they should be locked together in a room away from everyone else to concentrate on the following day and remain "in the zone." They finished seventh.

There are and always have been some great sporting individuals who do not need, or heed, coaches, psychologists or sports scientists at their elbow.

But for those lacking in confidence in their own ability and requiring help a coach should always be a confidante and ally, as well as a friendly tutor, not a bullying ogre who scares the living daylights out of you.

Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill’s former coach Toni Minichiello tweeted his support for Nile Wilson and said the same problems existed in athletics. But that’s another story.

It was always thought that Angelo Dundee was Muhammad Ali’s coach and guru. Not so. In fact, remarkable a personality as Angelo was he was actually Ali’s trainer, strategist and chief cornerman. 

I remember well his famous last words to The Greatest as the bell sounded for the first round of his most memorable victory, against George Foreman, his jungle rumble. "Stay off the ropes" he instructed Ali, propelling him into the fray.

Ali, always his own coach, immediately went into rope-a-dope mode, leaning back into them, drawing Foreman towards him and allowing George to pummel away at his body. "You ain’t hurting me, George" he murmured. "That your best shot?"

This went on until the eighth round when Ali used the ropes like a catapult, shoving Foreman to centre ring where he proceeded to unleash the right-hand punch that sent an already disoriented champion corkscrewing to the canvas.

So, Ali may not have needed a coach, but he never missed the bus.