British Swimming has apologised to Paralympic athletes after it was found that a former head coach “created a climate of fear”.
It said an independent inquiry into complaints of bullying from 13 Para-swimmers found they and their families faced “unacceptable behaviours”.
The governing body said the unnamed member of staff – understood to be ex-head coach Rob Greenwood – was found to have been “communicating with athletes in an abusive manner, as well as using derogatory terms to describe athletes”.
Greenwood left his job before the investigation began, and it is not known whether he disputes the allegations.
When contacted by the BBC he declined to comment.
A second member of staff, whose management and communication was criticised and who “acknowledged mistakes”, has faced disciplinary action, but remains in post.
“In the pursuit of excellence, we recognise there have been failings in the culture and communication within British Para-swimming” said the national governing body’s chairman Maurice Watkins.
Under Greenwood’s leadership, the country’s Para-swimmers became the most successful British team at last year’s Rio Paralympics, winning 47 medals – including 16 golds – and setting eight world records. Greenwood took up the position in 2013 and was named Sport Coach UK’s ‘High Performance Coach of the Year’ in 2016.
The programme received £11m of public funding from UK Sport in the four-year cycle leading up to the Rio Games.
‘We were left broken-hearted’
One of the athletes who represented ParalympicsGB in Rio and who made a complaint, wanted to remain anonymous but told BBC Sport: “It’s good that it has now been recognised, but it also feels as if nothing has really happened. I don’t have much confidence things will really change.
She says that she saw athletes being “screamed at” and “verbally abused and bullied” and “swimmers broken-hearted, crying their eyes out, and completely destroyed as a result of what had been said to them”.
“These members of staff would talk down to the swimmers, make us feel pathetic and useless. We were traumatised and belittled. It began a year before Rio and carried on constantly,” she added.
“I didn’t suffer as much as some of the others. We won plenty of medals, but they took it too far. If we’d had less pressure and stress and targets, we’d have been happier and won even more.”
BBC Sport has learned that the situation was deemed so serious that athletes were offered free therapy at the request of the British Athletes’ Commission, to help them deal with the strain of the investigation.
In March, BBC Sport revealed that Britain’s Para-swimming squad – which includes some of the country’s youngest and most vulnerable athletes – had become embroiled in a bullying controversy after multiple complaints against a coach.
British Swimming says that “after an initial investigation by a law firm concluded there was prima facie evidence which warranted further inquiries, the matter was referred by the British Athletes Commission (BAC) to the governing body in December 2016”.
In February, an independent investigation into the allegations was launched, and 13 athletes and 10 members of staff were interviewed.
‘Climate of fear’
“As regards the one member of staff who has left, it was found that he had created a climate of fear for some athletes in the British Para-swimming programme and there had also been breaches of the staff code by communicating with athletes in an abusive manner, as well as using derogatory terms to describe athletes,” British Swimming said.
“As for the second member of staff, it was found that athletes were not managed to the appropriate level, there was failure to ensure management control and lack of empathy was shown towards athletes.
“Communication with both athletes and their parents/guardians was also found to need improvement. The member of staff acknowledged mistakes had been made.”
“On behalf of British Swimming I want to apologise to the athletes and their families who have faced unacceptable behaviours and comments” said Watkins.
“I have written to those athletes and their families who I understand have been affected by this.
“In the pursuit of excellence, we recognise there have been failings in the culture and communication within British Para-swimming. We are correcting that, recognising the need to ensure strong athlete welfare in our sport.”
British Swimming says it has committed to “a robust action plan… to make sure transparent procedures are followed and adhered to… and a closer working relationship with the BAC.”
It said it is reviewing the staff code of conduct, safeguarding policies and the whistleblowing policy “to ensure they continue to be fit for purpose and widely communicated”.
“Our goal continues to be medal-producing performances, consistent with medal targets, in a positive culture,” it said.
Athlete welfare in the spotlight
With a third of governing bodies having been drawn into athlete welfare complaints in recent months, this latest scandal will heighten fears that medal success and UK Sport’s ‘no-compromise’ funding strategy has come at the expense of duty of care.
- In June, a report into claims of bullying at British Cycling found a lack of good governance, heard there was “a culture of fear” and criticised UK Sport for missing crucial warning signs.
- BBC Sport revealed a senior coach working with Great Britain’s Winter Olympic bobsleigh squad has been accused of racism amid multiple complaints over a “toxic atmosphere” in the sport.
- The BBC also revealed that police had reopened an investigation into a senior Archery GB coach having been suspended following a complaint to police over an alleged incident involving a young female Para-athlete.
- UK Sport meanwhile has promised a “root and branch review” of culture in high-performance programmes, and appointed a new head of integrity, with chair Dame Katherine Grainger saying that athlete welfare is “a huge concern”.
Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of the British Paralympic Association, said: “The health and wellbeing of athletes and indeed those involved in sport at any level is always of paramount importance.
“There is no place in Paralympic sport for the kind of cultural failings detailed in this independent report for British Swimming and we commend the governing body for their response to it and the action plan they have initiated.
“ParalympicsGB athletes are some of the most inspiring role models in public life and there are no circumstances in which this kind of conduct is acceptable.
“We would encourage athletes to challenge this behaviour wherever and whenever it arises and – as is happening across the system – all organisations and governing bodies to look at their culture and their processes to make sure they are as good as they can be and should be.”
Eleven-time Paralympic gold medallist Baroness Grey-Thompson, who has conducted a major government-commissioned report into duty of care in sport, said: “It should never be underestimated how hard it was for those on the programme to step forward and raise their concerns.
“As we’ve seen across a number of sports, the culture and system is not protecting its athletes in the way it should.
“Once again this shows that duty of care has to be a high priority within any sport pathway. It has to be at the heart of every programme. I don’t believe providing this support will be detrimental to the aspirations of any team. I hope the governing body will be able to create a positive environment around the squad for the future.”