UK Sport is facing renewed scrutiny of its commitment to athlete welfare after questions were raised over its treatment of complaints about GB Taekwondo.
Medical staff working with GB Taekwondo raised concerns to UK Sport over coaches’ practices with regard to concussion, weight loss and training loads, including claims that athletes were asked to train in saunas.
The complaints led to GB Taekwondo commissioning an independent review, although the organisation was allowed to select its own panel, who chose not to interview any of the complainants or athletes.
According to UK Sport, the independent review panel, whose secret report was published last year and has been seen by only a handful of senior staff at GB Taekwondo, UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport (EIS), found insufficient evidence to support the allegations.
GB Taekwondo has since ended its contract with EIS, which supplied the medical staff.
EIS says it had “concerns over the independence of the panel, the management of the review process and did not wholly agree with the findings of the final report”.
UK Sport said that the report highlighted “areas that required improvement” in GB Taekwondo’s practices but that there was not enough evidence to cause “significant concerns”.
It said it would monitor GB Taekwondo’s approach to athlete welfare more closely but insisted that the review had been carried out “appropriately”.
GB Taekwondo said the panel determined there was “no evidence to support the concerns raised, nor was there evidence of poor practice in terms of clinical governance at GB Taekwondo”.
It added that it had already begun planning to end its contract with EIS when the complaints were made in 2015.
GB Taekwondo is the latest British sporting success story to be hit by accusations of failing to prioritise athletes’ wellbeing.
The GB team enjoyed its best ever Olympic medal haul last year, when Jade Jones, Lutalo Muhammad and Bianca Walkden won gold, silver and bronze respectively in Rio.
British Cycling, canoeing, and para-swimming have faced complaints about bullying and athlete mismanagement.
All three sports are preparing independent reviews, with cycling due to report in May.
Medical staff raised concerns that GB Taekwondo coaches at times refused to accept medical diagnosis of concussion, multiple sources told City A.M.
GB Taekwondo strongly denies the claim and says it “has no greater priority than the health and wellbeing” of its athletes.
Medical staff also voiced fears that GB Taekwondo coaches could be endangering athlete welfare by at times making them lose weight too quickly, sources said.
On one instance, athletes were instructed to train in a sauna at a Russian hotel prior to the 2015 World Taekwondo Grand Prix.
GB Taekwondo told City A.M. it provided guidance on athlete weight management and safe weight-making. It added that training in saunas was common in a number of sports and that any use is carefully monitored.
Another concern raised by GB Taekwondo medical staff, sources said, was that athletes’ training loads were sometimes so high that they risked irreparable harm to joints and limbs.
They also said that training data was at times not logged, hiding the excessive loads and any link between those loads and injuries.
GB Taekwondo told City A.M. that the allegations were not true, adding that it had invested significantly in systems to improve the collation and accuracy of training data.
Further questions centre on the independent panel’s composition and findings.
Sources say UK Sport proposed a panel to carry out the review but that GB Taekwondo rejected it and handpicked another panel.
It is understood that the panel did not interview the medical staff who raised the concerns nor any of its elite athletes.
GB Taekwondo says it consulted with UK Sport on the composition of the panel and the terms of reference of the review. It said that it was up to the panel who to interview, adding that the panel used written submissions and medical notes.
UK Sport says it is “content that in terms of convening the review the National Governing Body took appropriate and timely action following the concerns raised and that the review was carried out appropriately and that any potential conflicts of interest regarding those involved in conducting the review were appropriately declared.”
Access to the report, produced in July 2016, has been restricted, with only one member of the medical staff permitted to read it -- and even then only while being observed.
GB Taekwondo said the report had not been made available to the public.
Some medical staff contracted to GB Taekwondo via EIS had been expecting to join GB Taekwondo in a formal capacity as part of the setting up of the National Taekwondo Centre.
But in September 2016 they were told by EIS that they would no longer be working on the programme. At least two of those medical staff have since left EIS.
GB Taekwondo told City A.M that the termination of its contract with EIS was part of a planned change.
EIS said: “No employment contracts of EIS employees were terminated as a result of the review as the process of Taekwondo changing services to an alternative provider of medical and physiotherapy services was already underway in 2015.”
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson last month made a series of recommendations on improving athlete welfare.
Grey-Thompson, who was asked to lead an independent review across elite sport by the government in April 2016, recommended the creation a sports ombudsman to hold governing bodies to account.
She also proposed making a board member on each governing body responsible for athlete welfare and allowing the British Athletes Commission to be financially independent of UK Sport.
Statements in full
UK Sport can confirm that an independent review was commissioned by GB Taekwondo in 2015 to investigate concerns raised by EIS medical staff around clinical governance.
UK Sport provided advice to GB Taekwondo on how to construct a Panel with appropriate expertise and independence and the need for a clear remit and terms of reference to address the allegations.
An independent review panel was appointed by GB Taekwondo and a report was produced in July 2016.
The review concluded that while there were areas that required improvement there was not sufficient evidence to give rise to significant concerns in this area. That said we have asked our internal teams within UK Sport (Performance and Governance) to provide an extra emphasis in their monitoring in terms of both the World Class Programme and GB Taekwondo’s internal processes on athlete welfare/safeguarding. We are also exploring how we can involve athletes more directly in providing their views on a confidential basis about both performance and services provided by practitioners.
UK Sport is content that in terms of convening the review the National Governing Body took appropriate and timely action following the concerns raised and that the review was carried out appropriately and that any potential conflicts regarding those involved in conducting the review were appropriately declared.
While it is true that the staff who raised the concerns are no longer working with GB Taekwondo, this was not related to the review but to wider operational need previously identified.
UK Sport has been reflecting on the process for this review and the Cycling Independent Review, which we joint commissioned with British Cycling, and is developing formal guidelines for future application in the high performance system.
GB Taekwondo has no greater priority than the health and wellbeing of the talented athletes on its world class programme. They are given an individualised training and competition plan as well as a bespoke nutrition and hydration programme which is underpinned by a robust weight management policy to ensure they are among the best prepared athletes in the world. They travel with medical support at all times to ensure they are fully fit to compete in this demanding sport.
When concerns were raised, GB Taekwondo, with the support of UK Sport, set up an Independent Review Panel made up of performance and sports medicine expertise from across the high-performance system and chaired by an experienced sports lawyer.
The panel determined that there was no evidence to support the concerns raised, nor was there evidence of poor practice in terms of clinical governance at GB Taekwondo.
When the accusations were made, GB Taekwondo was already planning a proposed change to its medical service provider to capitalise on the move to the new National Taekwondo Centre by strengthening the all-round support offered to our athletes in the run-up to Rio 2016, through improved services, and better communication and collaboration.
Further Improvements to the broader servicing and medical support of taekwondo athletes proposed within the Review have also been incorporated into our Tokyo 2020 performance plan.
English Institute of Sport (EIS)
In 2015 EIS medical staff raised concerns around clinical governance in GB Taekwondo which led to the commissioning of a review panel which reported in 2016.
The EIS had concerns over the independence of the panel, the management of the review process and did not wholly agree with the findings of the final report and made these points clear to UK Sport at the time.
The EIS has continued to have a dialogue with UK Sport around these issues.
No employment contracts of EIS employees were terminated as result of the review as the process of Taekwondo changing services to an alternative provider of medical and physiotherapy services was already underway in 2015.