Gymnasts in the UK are launching a group action legal claim after alleging they suffered physical and emotional abuse during their time as young gymnasts.
It could be the most damaging blow yet to gymnastics, one of the jewels in the crown of British Olympic sport, which has faced an avalanche of abuse claims over the past three months.
Claire Heafford is one of the gymnasts involved in the group claim. She alleges that she was the victim of abuse and coercive control within the sport in the early 1990s.
Alongside three of her contemporaries, she has written a letter to British Gymnastics setting out her allegations.
“We’re talking about 10-year-old girls being pushed around by a fully grown adult,” she said, “which was really, very scary and that was enough to set the frame of the rest of the abuse that took place.
“There was withdrawal of attention, deliberately ignoring gymnasts, a lot of being sent out the gym or taken off bits of equipment.”
British Gymnastics has transformed over the past three decades – from spectators on the world stage to a medal-winning force.
With Beth Tweddle leading the way, followed by Louis Smith, Max Whitlock, Amy Tinkler and others, British gymnasts are among the best in the world.
But Heafford believes that to achieve that, the sport from grassroots to elite level adopted abusive practices from ex-communist countries.
Heafford was herself coached by someone who had previously coached Russian girls to Olympic gold, before moving to the UK to continue their coaching career.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Soviet and Romanian gymnasts dominated. First came Olga Korbut, nicknamed the sparrow from Minsk, who evolved gymnastics from a balletic discipline to astonishing acrobatics.
Then Nadia Comaneci, who achieved the first perfect 10 at the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976, aged just 14.
Soon, British coaches were being dispatched over there as part of the Olympic solidarity programme, to watch how they did it.
And in the early 1990s, the first wave of Russian and Romanian coaches began instructing in UK gyms.
Heafford says that along with the unparalleled expertise came a brutality, and that the emotional abuse had a longer lasting impact on her life.
She is being represented by the international law firm Hausfeld in her legal claims, and hopes it can set a precedent for other gymnasts to reach some resolution.
“The long-term effect of the emotional abuse is that you feel you’ve never achieved anything and you’re nothing,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympic champion or at a much lower level in elite gymnastics, you’re still going to be made to feel like you’ve achieved nothing because that’s how the coach wants you to feel.
“That’s what the system is designed to make you feel. It’s based around a philosophy that you must be more scared of your coach than your skill.”
Allegations of welfare failings have been levelled at British Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, for the past three years.
In 2018, a group of parents, exhausted with what they viewed as the governing body failing to ensure the safety of athletes, shared their stories.
But it’s only been this summer that the true scale of the allegations has become apparent.
This week, the sport’s head coach Amanda Reddin has been temporarily suspended over bullying claims and an independent review into allegations of mistreatment within gymnastics has formally begun.
A UK helpline set up by the NSPCC for gymnasts who have suffered abuse in the sport has received more than 120 welfare calls since launching last month.
Charlie Fellows was among Britain’s best gymnasts, representing her country around the world.
She complained about weight management in the sport in 2018, saying gymnasts were forced to eat from “baby plates”, and says she is still scarred by her experiences.
She said: “I had a day off and went in the next day, and I was 0.5 over the scales and had to go into the fitness gym for seven hours for two days until I got back down to the weight they wanted. So I missed gymnastics for two days just to lose a bit of weight.”
“They told me I was too heavy to train and that injuries will occur,” she added. “If I’m not at this weight then I won’t be able to train properly and achieve what I want to achieve.”
British Gymnastics is one of the best supported Olympic sports, receiving £17m in National Lottery funding for the cycle to the Tokyo Games, now extended until next year. This pays for the upkeep of the newly refurbished national training centre in Lilleshall.
But some have unhappy memories of the place. Roxanne Jennison, who used to train at the South Durham Gymnastics Club, remembers starving herself to prepare for a trip to Lilleshall.
“We were weighed every week and if you didn’t weigh the same or less you knew about it,” she said. “We used to run to the toilet before getting weighed and stand outside jogging on the spot.
“One last pathetic attempt to lose weight. You’d strip down to your leotard and take out hair clips to weigh less. I was muscly but I wasn’t fat by any stretch of the imagination and I was constantly made to feel like I was.
“I was told to train in ankle weights as I was told that’s how I would feel if I put on weight. I wasn’t big, at the time I weighed seven stone. I’ve had issues with weight and eating ever since.”
Jennison’s former coaches, Nicola Preston and Rachel Wright, have been suspended pending the outcome of the independent investigation.
Paul Anderson, the chairman of South Durham Gymnastics Club, said: “South Durham Gymnastics categorically denies any allegations of abuse and mistreatment of any of its gymnasts. British Gymnastics has confirmed that any allegations of bullying or emotional abuse will be investigated by their Integrity Unit.”
It’s not just girls either. Christian Norman was a promising young gymnast but left the sport after he claims to have been called homophobic names by a former coach.
His mother, Jessica, said: “Christian was called the most horrendous names. It was ‘you’re a f*****, you’re a gay boy’.
“Any skill that he couldn’t quite do it was ‘man up, you gay boy’, and Christian kept that bottled up for so long. As a parent I feel so upset about that.”
Joseph Carr, a specialist abuse lawyer at Bolt Burdon Kemp, whose firm represented child sex abuse survivors in football, said: “We’ve had a lot of gymnasts contact us – this is just the tip of an iceberg.
“There’s been a culture in gymnastics which has allowed people in power to get away with abusive actions and they’ve not been receiving any consequences.”
From an antiquated past time to an Olympic-winning machine, gymnastics in Britain has – until now – been in the ascendancy.
But with the full weight of these abuse allegations yet to land, we still don’t know the true cost of the medals.