Becky Downie fears she paid the price for speaking out
Credit: DAVID ROSE
Becky Downie has missed out on an Olympics before. In a 15-year gymnastics career, in which she has won 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 about 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.
Downie describes the past few weeks as “the hardest of my life”. She had thought that things could not get worse than 2020: Olympic postponement, the fallout after she joined whistle-blowers including her sister Ellie 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 her brother Josh, 24, died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart condition while playing cricket. 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 were a lot of tears. It was the longest journey of my life, getting back to be with my family in Nottingham.”
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. Downie believes the routine put her in contention for a gold medal.
But on Friday last week her selection appeal was denied, and British Gymnastics confirmed she would not go to Tokyo. After missing the final trial due to bereavement, Downie and sister Ellie were given another opportunity by British Gymnastics to compete for their spot in the team 10 days later.
Though Ellie elected not to do so, Downie made the brave decision to take up the offer. “I know 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”. It 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 place she had learnt 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 its intention to replicate as closely as possible the Cardiff environment that the other gymnasts had competed in – for the benefit of fairness – Downie says it was she who was put at the disadvantage. New obstacles included British Gymnastics failing to book her training slot at the chosen venue, which meant she made a 90-minute trip and had to plead with the leisure centre to remain open. She also had an existing dispute with the governing body because it refused to allow her to use equipment at the trial which more closely resembled that being used in Tokyo.
British Gymnastics has defended the decision, saying it is focusing on medals in the team event, and that Downie’s specialism in bars posed a “risk” to this strategy. But a petition calling for an independent review of the selection process has received 25,000 signatures in the past five days. Downie says what hurts most is the way she believes the decision was made and how she was treated.
“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 a foregone conclusion before her trial.
British Gymnastics “categorically” denies the suggestion that the trial was a “tick box” exercise, and says it trusts 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, 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 while 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. No amount of apologies will ever make that OK.”
Downie and her sister were two of the only current British gymnasts to speak out about abuse in the sport, which triggered an independent review commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England.
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. I’m proud of what I did, and I don’t regret it.”
Downie is adamant though that she is not done with gymnastics. “There’s a world championships this year. They certainly don’t have control over my final chapter. I want to compete again on my terms.”