Becky Downie omission from Olympics squad a ‘sinister warning’ to whistleblowers

Becky Downie has been omitted from the Great Britain Olympics squad

Credit: Martin Rickett/PA

British Gymnastics has been accused of sending a "sinister warning" to whistleblowers after the shock omission of world silver medallist Becky Downie from their Olympics squad.

Downie, 29, is one of the sport’s biggest stars in this country, and had been granted a special chance to qualify for the team after her 24-year-old brother Josh’s sudden death ahead of the final trials last month. British Gymnastics delayed the selection of the four-gymnast team in order to allow her a last chance to compete for her place. 

Gymnasts were selected according to a number of different events over the past two years, including the final trials last month and the world championships two years ago, where Downie enjoyed great success – winning a silver medal on uneven bars.  

Downie was told of the initial decision to leave her out of the Olympics squad on May 26, and given 48 hours to appeal, the deadline of which fell on the day of her brother’s funeral. Despite appealing, British Gymnastics did not even place Downie on the three-gymnast reserve list for the Tokyo Games, a decision which could well have ended her international career.   

The announcement, when it was confirmed on Monday morning, sent shockwaves through the sport, particularly as Downie, an uneven bars specialist, ranked first during the trials in her preferred event. 

British Gymnastics’s performance director James Thomas said on Monday that the decision to omit her from the squad was based on prioritising the team event, which relies on performances across all four apparatus, despite specialists like Max Whitlock gaining selection on the men’s team last month.

Downie was one of several gymnasts to offer outspoken criticism of British Gymnastics in the past year, during which dozens of athletes alleged a culture of abuse and fear exists within the national governing body.

Former British gymnast and European silver medallist Niamh Rippin suggested that Downie may well have missed out because of her comments. 

"To leave out a potential Olympic medallist is one thing but regardless of this decision the way Becky has been treated by BG is horrifying," Rippin said. "Absolutely zero humanity involved in that final ‘trial’. For Becky to produce anything at all under those circumstances is beyond incredible let alone to produce decent scores and still not even be considered. Becky, you deserve better. Is it just a coincidence that Becky and [her sister] Ellie spoke up against abuse?"

Campaign group Gymnasts for Change also condemned the decision. “As a veteran of two Olympic teams and the Captain of both Rio and world championships squads, it is incomprehensible why the bars specialist has been dropped in a year she achieved a 6.8 SV in training in what has been touted as one of the most difficult routines in the world.

“We’re often concerned that British Gymnastics prioritises podiums over people, but with Becky having criticised the culture in British gymnastics just last year, it’s hard not to assume that their motivation in effectively ending Becky Downie’s career is a sinister warning to those who might speak out in future."

Ellie – who elected not to compete in the final trials following their brothers’ death – wrote on Twitter: "I would say it comes as a shock but after how we’ve been treated this year it’s not really."

When asked to respond to claims that Becky Downie had been left out because she had spoken out, British Gymnastics performance director James Thomas said: "We’re very clear to our panel in advance, and in every panel discussion for the Olympics selections, that no gymnast would [face] bias based on speaking up on any issues that they’ve raised.

"And for me, chairing that selection panel, we are very confident that we adhered to our policy. Every athlete was considered in line with the policy, and was represented fairly and consistently, and we made sure that we had observers as part of our panel to make sure that we’re adhering to our policy, which is why we included the BOA and British Athletes Commission."

Thomas also faced further questions on Monday as to the status of national coach Colin Still’s involvement with the team. Still was under investigation for allegedly weight shaming Olympic bronze medallist Amy Tinkler last year, and Telegraph Sport reported last month that he would serve as a selector for the Tokyo team.

Thomas would not confirm whether Still was at Lilleshall with the national team or whether he would be travelling to Tokyo, and only confirmed he "is still employed and active as a national coach and working with the team".

An independent review into abuse in the sport – set up by UK Sport and Sport England last July – remains ongoing, but the full results are not expected until after the Olympics.

Analysis: Why Downie’s non-selection is so shocking

The news that Downie will not be going to Tokyo has sent shockwaves across gymnastics and, as Great Britain’s most successful female gymnast up for selection, it is easy to understand why.

Downie, 29, won a silver medal at the 2019 world championships in the uneven bars, an event that was part of the selection criteria and has 14 major medals to her name. More to that, in April she posted a video of her latest routine on the apparatus which would reportedly score a 6.8 difficulty – far and beyond those posted by the other gymnasts eligible for Team GB selection, and with potential to challenge for a gold medal in Tokyo.

Her apparent superior ability on her specialist event was not enough to grant her a third Olympics appearance though, according to British Gymnastics’ selectors – nor any of the three reserve spots.

Downie had endured a turbulent build up to the final Olympic trial last month. Firstly there were reports of a row bubbling between British Gymnastics and Downie, over the decision to use straight bars in the Olympic trials instead of the angled bars which Downie needed to perform her latest, more difficult, routine on.

The death of her brother Josh later that month, on the eve of the final trials day, then put her and sister Ellie in an impossibly difficult position. Though younger sister Ellie elected not to take part in a postponed final trial day due to the bereavement, Becky – who had put off retirement in order to target the Tokyo Games – decided to push on to give herself the best possible chance of being selected.

After going through the ordeal of that trial, British Gymnastics’ decision not to include her in the squad has seen angry and emotive reactions online from Downie’s supporters. 

Some have pointed to she and sister Ellie being vocal critics of British Gymnastics during the abuse scandal which rocked the sport in the past year. The sisters alleged that abuse and unhealthy training environments were “so ingrained in our daily lives that it became completely normalised” in gymnastics.

Downie’s omission from the Olympic squad could potentially spell the end of her 13-year senior career, which included two world medals and two European titles, as well as appearances at the 2008 and 2016 Olympics. Her mother, Helen Downie, threw doubt on the suggestion she would retire though, tweeting: "Maybe it’s not the end, she’s a tough cookie with a point to prove," adding the hashtag "#watchthisspace".

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