Becky Downie fears she paid the price for speaking out
Credit: DAVID ROSE
Becky Downie has missed out on an Olympics before. In a 13-year gymnastics career, which has seen her win 14 major medals, she felt the heartbreak of watching a home Games from the sidelines in 2012. But this time is different, she says.
On Monday, her shock omission from the Tokyo 2020 team was announced, and she now says she can “never forget” the turmoil she endured from British Gymnastics during the selection process. She also hints that her treatment was influenced by her decision to speak out at the culture of abuse within gymnastics, suggesting she was “made to feel not welcome” at the sport’s training hub at Lilleshall after going public.
In an exclusive interview with Telegraph Sport, Downie describes the last few weeks as "the hardest of her life". She had thought things could not get worse than 2020: Olympic postponement, the fallout after she joined whistleblowers to speak publicly about what she described as "normalised" abusive training environments, and her father’s time in intensive care battling Covid-19.
But last month tragedy struck when her brother Josh, 24, died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart condition while playing cricket. It was news Downie says "you never imagine receiving". To make things worse, she received the devastating call on the eve of the final Olympic team trial, while apart from her family at a hotel in Cardiff.
"I got a knock on the door after midnight, and my first thought was it must be drug testers," Downie says of that night. "I was half asleep, completely dazed. The coaches came in and when they told me [that Josh had died], I thought, am I actually dreaming this? There are really no words to really describe it. There were a lot of tears. It was the longest journey of my life, getting back to be with my family in Nottingham."
Sat in her living room in Nottingham now, Downie still has a look of disbelief on her face as she describes the events of the last few weeks. Condolence cards are placed around the room to mark how raw and recent her family’s grief remains. Mounting more pain on top of that seems unimaginable, but the blows have kept coming.
Just two months ago, she was on top of the world after executing what she believes is a world leading uneven bars routine. At 29, she felt in the form of her life. When she posted a video of her routine online, major champions were applauding her in the comments, even the legendary Nadia Comaneci. Downie believes the routine put her in contention for a gold medal.
But last Friday her appeal was denied, and British Gymnastics confirmed she would not go to Tokyo. It is less than two years since she won a stunning silver medal at the World Championships – a competition that counted as a trial for the Olympic squad – but somehow she has failed to make even the three reserve spots for Tokyo. Though Downie has wished all of the gymnasts selected the best, she remains baffled by her exclusion – especially because she “met all the criteria” and her trials scores put her top of the rankings in bars.
British Gymnastics have defended the decision, saying they are focusing on medals in the team event, and that Downie’s specialism in bars posed a "risk" to this strategy. But it has caused uproar, with a petition calling for an independent review of the selection process receiving 25,000 signatures in the last five days. Beyond selection though, Downie says what hurts the most is the way she believes the decision was made and how she was treated in the process.
After missing the final trial due to bereavement, Downie and sister Ellie were given another opportunity by British Gymnastics to compete for their spot on the team 10 days later. Though Ellie elected not to do so, Downie made the brave decision to take up the offer.
"I know that Josh would want me to, he wouldn’t want me not to try," she says. What followed though, was a process where she alleges British Gymnastics lacked "any element of compassion".
They did not allow her to compete at her home gym in Nottingham or at the national centre at Lilleshall. British Gymnastics then rejected a venue she and her coach proposed and instead suggested she return to Cardiff – a six-hour round trip from her home and the very place she had learned of her brother’s passing.
"That’s the part that hurt me most. I refused. Why would I want to go back there? I don’t think that should have been asked of me at all."
Another venue was confirmed instead, and though British Gymnastics emphasised their intention to replicate as closely as possible the environment that the other gymnasts had competed in in Cardiff – for the benefit of fairness – Downie says it was her that was put at the disadvantage.
New obstacles included British Gymnastics failing to book her training slot at the chosen venue – a basic thing that all of the athletes had for their trial – which saw her make a 90-minute trip and have to plead with the Leisure Centre to remain open. She also had an existing dispute with the governing body because they refused to allow her to use equipment at the trial which more closely resembled that being used in Tokyo. As a bars specialist, this meant she couldn’t perform her highest difficulty routine. "It’s like telling Lewis Hamilton to get in a Ferrari and drive – in a sport of small margins, and high performance, equipment is always a factor."
Actually competing in the trial, while still reeling from the death of her brother, was "the hardest thing I ever had to do", and she describes national coaches walking past her wordlessly while she “sobbed uncontrollably”. But afterwards, she and Ellie walked out of the gym with "not a doubt in our mind" that she had done enough.
"If I can perform in that environment, which was harder than any Olympic final would ever be, I’m really proud," she says.
But, according to British Gymnastics, it was not enough. Knowing now that the team event was the priority in selection, she believes her exclusion from the team was already a foregone conclusion before her trial.
British Gymnastics "categorically" denies the suggestion that the trial was a "tick box" exercise, and say they trust that selection was decided purely on merit, but Downie is unconvinced. To add insult to injury, she was given a 48-hour deadline to appeal the decision, falling on the day of her brother’s funeral.
"It makes me feel sick that they treated me like that," she says. "It hurts me to know the things I had to miss. Picking the flowers for the funeral whilst I was away trialling, a tribute for my brother at his cricket club, which happened when I wasn’t even given a proper training slot. I missed that, for what? There’s so much that was hurtful.
"I’ll never forget that. And no amount of apologies will ever make that okay."
Downie and her sister were two of the only current British gymnasts to speak out about abuse in the sport last year, which triggered an independent review commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England. When she was left out of the squad on Monday, lobbying group Gymnasts for Change called it a "sinister warning" being sent by British Gymnastics to whistleblowers.
Does Downie think this outcome is a result of her speaking out? "It’s very hard to say… But I definitely know that there has been a big behavioural shift towards me and Ellie, since that point, from certain individuals, decision makers. We’ve gone down to Lilleshall and been made to feel not welcome.
"I have been told by a person of significant importance – in the national team environment – that a lot of coaches do not agree with what we’ve done. Maybe I did open my mouth a year too soon, I’m not sure. If this is the sacrifice [an Olympics] then this is the sacrifice, change needs to happen. I’m proud of what I did and I don’t regret it."
Tokyo was meant to be her final bow, but now Downie has spent her first week in months out of the gym.
Downie is adamant though that she is not done with gymnastics. Despite the heartache and hurt caused, her love for the sport remains strong.
"It’s hard for me to think, can I be selected for a team ever again? I do know I want to carry on, because I want to show that routine. I haven’t done two years of work to sit on the sofa. There’s a World Championships this year. They certainly don’t have control over my final chapter. I know I want to compete again on my terms."
But the dream of Olympic gold is gone: "I genuinely believe that we could have done it. I think I had a shot at being the first female Olympic champion Britain has had in gymnastics."