Olympic medallist Nile Wilson has criticised a “culture of abuse” in British gymnastics, saying athletes are “treated like pieces of meat”.
The 24 year-old, who won bronze at Rio 2016, is the highest-profile male gymnast to speak out after the sport was hit by allegations of mistreatment.
Wilson told BBC Sport he was “scared” that publicly voicing concerns could cost him selection for the Tokyo Games.
He said he had been left “heartbroken” by the outcome of a complaint he lodged with his home base of Leeds Gymnastics Club earlier this year that he felt was “brushed under the carpet”.
The complaint did not relate to his training or coaching staff, instead centring on an altercation with a senior member of staff at a club social event.
Following an internal club investigation, Wilson’s grievance was dismissed, a decision then upheld after a review by British Gymnastics.
“I just felt like I wasn’t being heard. And I was wronged,” said Wilson, who called the process “unprofessional”.
At times struggling to contain his emotions, Wilson said: “I believe there’s a massive element of control.
“We’re made to feel fear, or scared of speaking out, voicing our concerns, because they have us, our livelihoods, in their hands.
“If I voice my concern, I may affect my selection for Olympic Games.
“So, we stay quiet, we do what we’re told.
“And in wrapping that up, I feel like that’s the culture, that’s how I’ve experienced it the last two decades.”
In a statement Leeds Gymnastics Club said it disputed Wilson’s version of events and the allegations referred to were “professionally and robustly investigated in line with the club’s policy and advice”.
The club added: “At the time all parties placed on record their confidence in the meticulous investigation and evidence gathering process, the outcomes of which were independently verified.”
British Gymnastics said the club had dealt with the matter appropriately and that it stood by the review of the complaint.
‘A culture of abuse’
Wilson is one of British gymnastics’ biggest stars.
Four years ago he made history, becoming the first Briton to win an Olympic medal on the horizontal bar in Rio. In 2018 he claimed three golds at the Commonwealth Games, and despite recovering from neck surgery, is one of Team GB’s brightest medal hopefuls for Tokyo 2020.
But Wilson says he now wants to speak out about his experiences in the sport.
This summer’s release of the ‘Athlete A’ documentary detailing the cover-up of sexual abuse within the USA Gymnastics team has been a catalyst for allegations of mistreatment across the sport, including in the UK.
Wilson says it has made a deep impression on him, highlighting what he believes is a culture in which gymnasts are “pushed through physical pain” in the pursuit of medals.
“It’s been an incredibly emotional couple of weeks for myself,” he says, speaking at his gym in Rotherham.
“Watching that film really hit home, and I’ve spoken to a lot of athletes, my friends, my team-mates, and there were lots of tears shed.
“I absolutely don’t want to put myself in the box of a [jailed former US team doctor] Larry Nasser case – it’s just absolutely disgusting.
“But we wanted to win medals. The governing body, the coaches, wanted to win Olympic medals.
“This culture of ‘win at all costs’… I feel for many years emotional manipulation and being pushed through physical pain was certainly something I experienced.
“I think it was coaching methodology where we felt what it feels like to live in fear – you perform or there’s a consequence.
“And I think that affects you emotionally more than anything.
“In fear of even being able to speak about something that hurts, or voice your concerns.”
Wilson – who maintains excellent relations with his long-term coach Dave Murray – added: “I have empathy for the system, because you’re a coach wanting success and an athlete wanting success – the culture was already there, that’s how it worked.
“And the parents and everyone, we were just like, ‘this is gymnastics, this is normal’.
“And looking back, it made us into the athletes that we are today.
“I’ve been blessed to have had some incredible coaches.
“But it was certainly apparent that culture existed and still exists today, which I definitely want to change.
“I would certainly say that I was abused. Without a doubt.
“I would absolutely describe it as a culture of abuse.
“And I’ve lived and breathed it for 20 years.”
In a statement, British Gymnastics said: “Any mistreatment of gymnasts is inexcusable at any level. It is vital that concerns are made public whether through the media or our processes.
“To date, we have not had any complaint from Nile in regard to his gymnastics career and would encourage him, and any gymnast who feels they have been mistreated, to report it either to our Integrity Unit, or by calling the BAC/NSPCC Helpline on 0800 056 0566.”
‘Brushed under the carpet’
Last month British Gymnastics announced an independent review would be launched to look into allegations of widespread mistreatment in the sport. But concerns have been raised about the time taken to look into complaints in the past.
The governing body defended its processes after Olympic medallist Amy Tinkler criticised it for a lack of urgency with an investigation into her claims of bullying and abuse.
And Wilson has revealed his unhappiness about the way the complaint he made earlier this year was handled.
The incident – an altercation at a social event, he says – “involved someone in authority” at Leeds Gymnastics Club. It did not relate to his training or coaching staff.
“But it was strong enough, and affected me emotionally [enough] to voice a concern,” he said.
“When we start the process, that’s where I felt something isn’t right.
“I felt I wasn’t being heard – like I was the problem.”
Wilson’s case was rejected following an internal club hearing, a decision then upheld by a British Gymnastics review. Wilson says the governing body warned him to keep the case confidential.
“I felt I was then threatened about voicing my concerns publicly,” he said.
“So I left the club I’ve been at for 20 years – and I don’t feel like I can go back until this is once again looked at.
“The governing body and the club – they didn’t care.
“The amount of pressure and stress it caused… it was just a really tough time. I just felt absolutely heartbroken.”
Wilson – who is now training at his own gym in Rotherham, and who has spoken previously about his struggles with mental health – said the episode had left him feeling “completely worthless”.
He said going public with the way he feels “has been one of the hardest decisions I’ve made”.
He added: “My incident highlights that there’s still a challenge in the culture of gymnastics.
“And it starts at the top of the governing body. Hopefully my words and my story can help continue to drive the change.”
In a statement Leeds Gymnastics club said they were “very disappointed and extremely concerned that Nile now feels this way”.
The club added: “The allegations referred to were professionally and robustly investigated in line with the club’s policy and advice.
“At the time all parties placed on record their confidence in the meticulous investigation and evidence gathering process, the outcomes of which were independently verified.
“We would be pleased to co-operate with Sport England to arrange a further review of the papers pertaining to this very serious allegation.”
In a statement British Gymnastics said: “We do not accept this at all.
“We advised that this was a club grievance matter and we also voluntarily reviewed the complaint ourselves, including viewing CCTV footage of the incident.
“We concluded the club had dealt with the matter appropriately. We are confident that we reviewed this matter fully and professionally and would be happy to provide all correspondence, witness statements and CCTV footage of the incident in question to the Independent Review.”
Wilson said he feared that speaking publicly for the first time about the way he felt could jeopardise his selection for the Tokyo Olympics.
“The medals provide the funding [for] the sport to be where it is today,” he said.
“So we stay quiet, we do what we’re told. We’re the ones that win those medals – and yet the gymnasts are still treated like pieces of meat and paid the least.
“I’m scared talking to you may affect [selection].
“That’s one big change I want to see, [so] we feel like we can voice our opinions and not bottle them in and do what we’re told, because we fear that we may not be selected.
“We’re human beings. We are not pieces of meat and I want to continue to drive the change in the culture.
“It’s about fun, having a smile on your face, wanting to work hard, being excited to achieve, not scared that there’s going to be a consequence if you don’t.”