March 17th 2021
British Gymnastics: Three Takeaways from the Court of Appeal

In a saga that has been running for more than two years, yesterday the Court of Appeal were finally presented with the final arguments from gymnastics two competing governing bodies.

British Gymnastics, terrified that their multi-million pound monopoly on gymnastics was being challenged, had brought a claim against their smaller rival, UK Gymnastics, saying that there was only room for one national governing body in a sport and hey, they were the only game in town.

British Gymnastics had known about UK Gymnastics for almost a decade but had taken no action. It was only when gymnasts and gymnastics clubs started to leave British Gymnastics, partly down to bad service, partly down to abuse, and join their rival UK Gymnastics, whose membership swelled to over 10,000, that British Gymnastics saw the need for action.

In no time at all British Gymnastics had spent almost £200,000 of taxpayers money on trying to stop UK Gymnastics, some say money that would have been better spent dealing with the systematic abuse that the media, particularly ITN, has proved exists in British Gymnastics ranks.

But what were the takeaways from yesterday’s Court of Appeal Hearing?

British Gymnastics felt that only they could call themselves a national governing body. Their argument has ended up being ruthlessly exposed. Even Sport England have admitted that there can be multiple governing bodies, some recognised, some not, and the plethora of governing bodies in sports such as boxing, bowls, darts and athletics made a mockery of British Gymnastics argument.

What the public wants, the public eventually gets. 11,000 people wanted to escape the clutches of British Gymnastics, and become members of a different governing body, and it was a growing movement that was difficult to ignore. The Courts are liable to follow the public’s lead, and the evidence, to support the theory that there can be multiple, not necessarily Sport England recognised, governing bodies.

The second takeaway was the accusation that UK Gymnastics were creating confusion in the minds of the public by calling themselves ‘UK’ Gymnastics, as opposed to ‘British’ Gymnastics, and using similar colours (a combination of reds and blues) in a logo.

Never mind that British Gymnastics couldn’t produce a single witness in their hundreds of thousands membership to say they had been confused between the two organisations.

Never mind the fact that in other sports there were multiple governing bodies, all with similar names or logos.

Never mind that UK Gymnastics made it crystal clear on the front page of their website that British Gymnastics were the only recognised governing body in the UK, in large, bold letters.

Never mind that British Gymnastics income has grown, supported by the taxpayer, into the tens of millions, increasing each year.

British Gymnastics barrister, Victoria Jones, rambled along, desperately clinging to her bedraggled client’s arguments, but with the look of someone who wished she were somewhere entirely different.

And the third takeaway? It might seem a bit mundane, or even premature, to talk about costs at the end of a case which hasn’t even been concluded, but it is something that impacts on every single individual or organisation that has ever been involved in county court hearings upwards – the issue of how much you have to try to resolve things before you end up in front of a judge.

The Courts call this ADR, alternative dispute resolution, or more simply, mediation. It is where both parties must make some attempt to genuinely talk to each other and resolve differences. A practice that has stood the test of time since the dawn of man – and works.

The problem is when one party doesn’t want to talk at all. And so has been the case in gymnastics. British Gymnastics, who let’s not forget brought the claim in the first place, have refused to enter into any discussions, or mediation with UK Gymnastics since day one. Doubtless they feel too arrogant to speak with pesky little competitor, as it now seems they have been in dealing with multiple abused gymnasts over a decade or more.

At the first Hearing of this case in March the Court failed miserably in understanding the notion that if one party decides not to engage in mediation, their should be an impact on their costs, even if they do win.

The Court of Appeal now has a second chance to correct this error, and make sure that the third takeaway does not become the most important one, in setting a precedent that if you are big and powerful, you can get away with doing without mediation entirely, knowing that the Courts will look favourably on you when it comes to costs.

Not only would this be a disaster for the sport of gymnastics, and make other up-and-coming governing bodies wonder if they should take the plunge to create a better environment, but moreover millions of ordinary people could be impacted by the Courts refusal to acknowledge the importance of mediation from both sides, and lead the individual to consider whether he should bother with mediation, in his County Court claim, at all.

The Court of Appeal must hanker down and punish parties which refuse to mediate at all, otherwise we will all suffer.

But of course this case hasn’t been about any of this in reality. It has simply been about a monopoly, and a multi-million pound business one at that, seeking to preserve their monopoly, and ensure there is no competition in the marketplace.

And this is where the Courts will need to think carefully about what the public wants, and how they are going to be perceived, if they do as British gymnastics wish, and consign the only real competition into oblivion.

If the Court allows there to be only one shop on the High Street, selling the product that everyone wants, and forces all the other shops selling similar products to close, then there is going to be one almighty backlash.

Scores of abused gymnasts will rightly want to know why the door has been closed on them to playing the sport somewhere else, away from the arrogance of British Gymnastics.

They will want to know why the Court is forcing them, if they really do want to take part in gymnastics, to go back to the very abusers who they escaped from in the first place.

And the public will want to know why the Courts are keeping monopolies in one sector of business alive, yet intent on opening up competition in just about every other sector of business you can think of.

As utility industries, unions, and dictatorships have all found out, defying the public’s will is not something to be taken lightly.

One way or the other, the Court is going to have to recognise that they need to think about the weight of public opinion as well as the dry technical arguments.

Eventually, what the public wants, the public gets.

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