What like sports success? Sometimes it’s so simple to answer – it certainly has to be crossing the line first, scoring the most, standing on the top of the podium. At other times, such an attitude seems naive, misleading, verding on delusional. Reading the Whyte Review is one of those times. Anna Whyte’s cold commentary on gymnastics forces us to question the purpose of world – class sport and whether there is room for ethical values and standards in high – performance environments. It challenges all of us who are involved in the sport in some way to take responsibility for the path that led to this point. The report also contains phrases that are vaguely related to other parts of the sporting world.
Whyte pointed out that for more than a decade a significant portion of the elite gymnastics community has been associated with ongoing systemic human suffering through widespread physical, emotional and mental abuse, which often affects children under the age of 12. age, mostly women. . It’s easy to pinpoint individuals but because of that we need to think more broadly. How could long-term human damage that could last a lifetime be included in the pursuit of a shiny piece of metal on a regular basis? What kind of environments, what kind of culture and what kinds of leaders stand up to a system of values in which an inanimate object is worth harming a child?
There are many that are part of the ecosystem that has sustained this. Our Olympic and Paralympic layout has a sophisticated, unchanged approach to success, supporting marginal gains to ensure that no performance factor has been overlooked. All of this makes it hard to swallow that the lack of austerity was in favor of anything other than willful.
This is not a superficial question, its roots run deep and the solution must be at least as deep. The practices that Whyte discovers have evolved over many years and require constant cultural change long after the media has moved on. It is vital that everyone involved in sport from government, UK Sport, national governing bodies and clubs down to coaches, parents and volunteers simply tinkers on the surface. Changing policies, processes and rules is not enough – we need to change attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. This cannot be achieved in a few workshops or policy statements.
Before different ethical values and standards can be developed, we need to understand what inspired the existing ones. What was the motivation, what were the motivations, what was the core? Only then can we begin to reshape the system and redefine what is recognized, rewarded and prioritized. Change does not happen through good intentions: it comes through consistent leadership that addresses the less visible but crucial level of culture, “the way things are done”, the non – verbal rules that everyone knows. These do not translate easily.
Before looking at individual coaches, we need to consider how those coaches learned how to coach, how they were managed and developed, and how their performance was reviewed and measured. Did it matter how they managed to achieve good results, or was it just important to achieve those results? Before we look at particular leaders, we need to understand how they rose through the sport, how they were held accountable and what for, and how their behavior, which was often praised, was accepted. And before we look at the role of UK Sport in fostering, incentivising and systematising a focus on short-term outcomes over long-term interests, we need to consider what values, standards and measures are held by their political masters.
As Whyte asks “how many sports scandals will he do before the government of the day realizes that it needs to take more action to protect children who take part in sport”, we are reminded that there is a continuing misunderstanding across the British government the purpose and potential of sport: the perpetual underestimation and deliberate ignorance of the potential role of sport in state education from primary to secondary school despite too much evidence to the contrary from the Youth Sport Trust and from numerous studies; and a largely trivial, trivial story about national sport as a source of excellence for other countries. Sport is one of our best vehicles for exploring human potential and for driving wider character development, personal resilience, and the essential qualities of teamwork, creativity, and integrity. But those were not the values that Whyte revealed. Rather, she discovered how the human capacity to create suffering in intangible, normalized ways was now central.
Each time, our narrow, short – term, inhuman picture of repeated success comes on a number of table bases: it inspires government ministers who want to restore “British pride” and get a quick boost every four years, it’s underpinned by UK Sport. key metrics and hiring and shooting coaches and performance directors. The old-fashioned win-win story is still intertwined with other sports and the wider society, and lurs in playgrounds, Hollywood movies and program rooms. This macho, ego-driven ethos revolves around winning a narrow-minded but easy-to-follow logic, which you must not lose if you are not ready for this. And with the dangerous exception, which is widely referenced in the report, “you do not understand gymnastics, this is how it must be”.
Because of our susceptibility to binary thinking we think if we are not committed to winning “whatever it takes” then we must automatically become a member of a barmy brigade that wants to give medals to everyone who comes to heads. I believe there is a wide range between these two positions that we have hardly considered. If we turned our ambitions toward different ways to succeed in exploring, who knows what else might be there: longer athlete careers, better stories to inspire, more attracting more people of all ages into sport at all levels, wider social influence, who knows, and also medals.
Ironically, sport is guilty of steady thinking rather than a performance mindset that constantly explores how to do things better. When we had shown that we could win without prioritizing interest, we seemed to be convincing ourselves that that was the only way, one of the inevitable costs, that was part of of the “intensity” required to reach the top. (Similarly, once we had proven that we could win a large number of Olympic gold medals without improving public participation rates, leaders saw this as proof that this was the only way to do it, rather than curious if we could win gold medals in a way that could support participation.
It certainly needs time to apply our collective energy throughout high performance sports to create a vivid picture of what success can look like. We desperately need new measures, based on qualitative metrics rather than quantitative metrics. We should not base the same value on an abusive experience as we do on a basis that is part of a personal growth and well-being story. We must not limit the value of the sport to what fits your league table or coin count. Human possibility does not come in neat boxes.
The Whyte review asks us to be more ambitious about how we pursue excellence, broaden our success criteria, and think about the quality of the human experience behind each base. It is a challenge to build a stronger and more inclusive system based on values that will not harm them in the long run, we are ashamed to discount the measure of human experience, nor are we constrained to explore potential: we can and must do more best.
The Bishop Battle is an Olympic commentator, former diplomat and author. She is a consultant for The True Athlete Project