What does sporting success look like? At times it seems so alluringly simple to answer that – surely it has to be crossing the line first, scoring most, standing on the top step of the podium. At other times, such a view seems naive, misleading, verging on delusional. Reading the Whyte Review is one of those times. Anna Whyte’s chilling report on gymnastics forces us to question the purpose of elite sport and ask whether there is space for values and ethical standards in high performance environments. It challenges all of us involved in sport in some way to take responsibility for the path that led to this point. There are phrases within the report that resonate sinisterly with other parts of the sporting world too.
Whyte revealed how “success” for a significant part of the elite gymnastics community for more than a decade involved ongoing, systematic human suffering through widespread physical, emotional and mental abuse, frequently affecting children under the age of 12, a majority of whom were female . It’s easy to point fingers at individuals but the scale of this requires us to think more broadly. How could the pursuit of a shiny piece of metal regularly include long-term human damage that can last a lifetime? What sort of environments, what kind of culture and what types of leaders uphold a value system where an inanimate object is worth harming a child?
There are many who are part of the ecosystem that has sustained this. Our Olympic and Paralympic setup boasts a sophisticated, no-stone-unturned approach to success, championing marginal gains to ensure no performance factor has been overlooked. All of which makes it difficult to swallow that the lack of rigor around welfare was anything other than wilful.
This is not a superficial issue, its roots run deep and the solution will need to be at least as profound. The practices Whyte uncovers have evolved over decades and require ongoing cultural change long after the media has moved on. It’s vital that all involved in sport from the government, UK Sport, national governing bodies and clubs down to coaches, parents and volunteers don’t just tinker on the surface. Changing policies, processes and rules is not enough – we need to change the mindsets, behaviors and beliefs. That cannot be achieved in a few workshops or policy statements.
Before different values and ethical standards can be developed, we need to understand what drove the existing ones. What was the motivation, what were the incentives, what lay at the core? Only then can we start to reshape the system and redefine what gets recognized, rewarded and prioritized. Change doesn’t happen through good intentions: it comes through consistent leadership that addresses the least visible but critical level of culture, “the way things are done”, the unspoken rules that everyone knows. These don’t shift easily.
Before we look at individual coaches, we need to consider how those coaches learned to coach, how they were managed and developed, and how their performance was reviewed and measured. Did it matter how they went about achieving good results, or did it just matter that they delivered those results? Before we look at particular leaders, we need to understand how they rose through sport, how they were held accountable and what for, and how their behaviors were accepted, often praised. And before we look at UK Sport’s role in feeding, incentivising and systematising the focus on short-term outcomes over long-term welfare, we need to consider what values, standards and measures their political masters have been holding them to.
As Whyte witheringly asks “how many sporting scandals will it take before the government of the day appreciates it needs to take more action to protect children who participate in sport”, we are reminded of a consistent misunderstanding across British government of sport’s purpose and potential: the perpetual underestimation and wilful ignorance of the role sport could play in state education from primary through secondary school despite overwhelming evidence of the opposite from the Youth Sport Trust and multiple studies; and a largely triumphalist, trivializing narrative around national sport as a source of superiority over other countries. Sport is one of the best vehicles we have to explore human capabilities and drive broader character development, personal resilience, and essential qualities of teamwork, creativity and integrity. But those weren’t the values exposed by Whyte. Rather, she uncovered how the human capability for creating suffering in undetectable, normalized ways had become central.
At every turn, our narrow, short-term, inhuman picture of success as a number of medals in a table recurs: it drives government ministers wanting to restore “British pride” and get a quick boost every four years, it has underpinned UK Sport’s key metrics and the hiring and firing of coaches and performance directors. The old-fashioned narrative of winning at all costs is still engrained across other sports and wider society, and lurks in playgrounds, Hollywood films and boardrooms. This macho, ego-driven ethos around winning fuels a narrow-minded but easy to follow logic that if you’re not up for this, you must be a loser. And the dangerous exceptionalism, widely referenced in the report, that “you don’t understand gymnastics, this is how it has to be”.
Our susceptibility for binary thinking leads us to think that if we’re not committed to do “whatever it takes” to win, then we must automatically belong to the barmy brigade who wants to hand out medals to everyone who turns up. I believe there is a large area in between these two positions that we have barely considered. If we turned our ambitions towards exploring different ways to succeed, who knows what more might be possible: longer athlete careers, better stories to inspire, drawing more people of all ages into sport at all levels, wider social impact, who knows, and medals too.
Sport is, ironically, guilty of fixed thinking rather than a performance mindset that constantly explores how to do things better. Once we had demonstrated we could win without prioritizing welfare, we seemed to convince ourselves that was the only way, one of the inevitable costs, part of the “toughness” required to get to the top. (Similarly, once we had proved that we could win vast amounts of Olympic gold medals without improving grassroots participation rates, leaders saw that as proof that that was the only way to do it, rather than get curious about whether we could win gold medals in a way that might actually support participation.)
It must surely be time to put our collective energies across high performance sport into creating a vibrant picture of what success could look like. We desperately need new measures, based on qualitative rather than quantitative metrics. We should not attach the same value to a medal accompanied by an experience of abuse as we do to a medal that is part of a story of personal growth and wellbeing. We must not limit sport’s value to what fits into a league table or medal count. Human possibility doesn’t come in neat boxes.
Whyte’s review calls for us to be more ambitious about the way we pursue excellence, to broaden our success criteria, and think about the quality of human experience behind each medal. It’s a challenge to build a stronger, more inclusive system based on values that won’t tarnish over the long term, shame us for discounting the measure of human experience, nor constrain us from exploring potential: we can and must do better.
Cath Bishop is an Olympic rower, former diplomat and author. She is an adviser to The True Athlete Project