Downie sisters describe ‘environment of fear’ in British gymnastics
Becky and Ellie are members of the GB elite squad and considered strong medal favourites for the Tokyo Olympics
Becky and Ellie Downie returned from last year’s World Gymnastics Championships with medals around their necks but say their smiles hid a history of bullying and mental abuse that blighted their rise to the top of the sport.
Becky, 28, and 20-year-old Ellie, who are both members of the GB elite squad and considered strong medal favourites for the Tokyo Olympics, said they decided to speak out after witnessing the “brave” testimonies of an increasing number of contemporaries.
Earlier on Thursday, it emerged that another member of the Rio 2016 Olympic team was still awaiting a response over eight months after lodging a complaint that included allegations relating to bullying and threatening behaviour by coaching staff.
In a joint statement released via their respective social media channels, the pair said they had experienced a litany of historic bullying and abuse, including a focus on weight which Ellie Downie said had “left deep scars which will never be healed”.
The pair said: “We certainly didn’t realise how wrong it was at the time. It’s taken years and years to understand and come to terms with it.
“While exact experiences obviously vary, we both recognise the environment of fear and mental abuse those before us have described so bravely.
“For too long, the health and well-being of young girls has been of secondary importance to a dated, cruel, and – we’d argue – often ineffective culture within women’s gymnastics training.”
As recently as 2018 I attempted to speak up at a national camp about what I considered was an unsafe approach to my personal training
- Becky Downie
Becky Downie described how she had been “trained to the point of physical breakdown” on many occasions in her career, adding: “Only in recent years I’ve understood properly the mental impact that’s had upon me.”
She added: “As recently as 2018, and given I was by this point a very senior athlete, I attempted to speak up at a national camp about what I considered was an unsafe approach to my personal training.
“I was shot down, called ‘mentally weak’, and told the injury pain levels I was experiencing were in my head.
“Just 12 days later, at the European Championships, my ankle broke down yet again; a direct consequence of the unsafe training I (had) attempted to bring up less than a fortnight earlier.”
Becky Downie has undergone four operations on her ankle, keeping thoughts of retirement at bay to win the first individual world medal of her career when she took silver on the uneven bars.
Ellie Downie has been considered one of Britain’s best prospects for an individual Olympic medal since she swept onto the scene by becoming the first Briton to win a major all-around title at the European Championships in Cluj in 2017.
She also endured ankle surgery before coming back to win a bronze medal on the vault in Stuttgart, but admitted that despite her success, years of being made to feel “ashamed” about her weight still led to her hiding food from coaches for fear of the consequences if it was found.
She described being forced to strip to her underwear, and how on one occasion a coach had joked that he hoped the bag of painkillers she was holding were in fact diet pills.
Ellie Downie added: “From 14 years old I’ve been told to diet consistently. At one time at this age, again after being told I was too heavy, I was told by a nutritionist to provide food diaries of everything that entered my mouth and send daily pictures of me in my underwear to ensure I wasn’t lying.
“I can’t emphasise the damage these kind of comments do to young girls like me, whether intended as a joke or not.
“This never-ending focus on my weight has left deep scars which will never be healed, I suspect.
“After a deep emotional battle, I’ve finally found a place to be happy with my body outside of the gym, but I’ll always feel overweight whenever I’m in a gymnastics setting.”
The Downies are the first current members of the elite GB squad to go public about their experiences, following a series of allegations by former and junior athletes in recent days.
Becky Downie said that having found the courage to first raise her concerns with British Gymnastics staff in 2018, she recognised “clear and obvious changes”.
Downie said: “After my 2018 situation, and deciding to speak up, this sparked a change for the better with regards to programme safety and training personalisation.
“We are now able to communicate any training-related thoughts and concerns with our national and personal coaches.
“We’re also no longer routinely weighed and are encouraged to eat properly to aid our performance and recovery.
“This culture change has encouraged us to continue using our voice as a tool for good, as we’ve seen the positive effects of doing so.”
British Gymnastics, which said it would not immediately comment on the sisters’ statement, has initiated an independent review and insisted: “We are determined to get to the bottom of these issues.”