“I’ve always loved how the BEAA was founded by athletes and led by athletes,” says current CEO Anna Watkins, herself a double Olympian. From its inception in 2004, the British Elite Athletes Association (formerly the British Athletes Commission) has been athlete-led.
It began when rower Guin Batten and para-swimmer Marc Woods secured funding from UK Sport to establish a body in which athletes represented athletes. The first meeting saw pentathlete Kate Allenby appointed Chair, and rower Peter Gardner soon joined as General Secretary, later becoming Chief Executive Officer.
Other early figures included Kirsty Hay (curling), Giles Long (para-swimming), Alison Williamson (archery), John Mayock (athletics), John Robertson (sailing), Karen Roberts (judo) and Graham Gristwood (orienteering), while swimmer Karen Pickering soon took over as Chair and served for almost 12 years.
Today, alongside expert staff, the organisation is led by Watkins as CEO and Olympian pentathlete Dominic Mahony as Chair, with sprinter Asha Philip and hockey captain Hollie Pearne-Webb on the board. Ex-skeleton athlete Milly Kellyman and former Scotland international hockey player Fiona Semple also provide athlete community and support.
That common thread of athlete insight for athletes’ benefit has lasted for 20 years, and while the size and capacity of the BEAA has changed, our mission hasn’t.
“It was about championing the voice,” says Batten, one of the co-founders in 2004 who campaigned for the BEAA’s creation and spent several months writing its constitution. “We were adamant that this was athletes leading athletes.”
To that end Batten and her colleagues soon appointed Peter Gardner as the organisation’s first permanent member of staff.
“I came on with my contract as BAC General Secretary three weeks after I came back from the  Olympics,” Gardner says of his arrival. “In its early stage the aim was to have athletes represented by athletes. Just giving people the ability to feel like they had a voice.
“There were good examples of athlete representation and good examples of sports who did listen to their athletes, but it was hit and miss. There were no checks and balances to make sure that athletes’ rights and best interests were being looked at all the time.”
The early years saw Gardner represent the athlete viewpoint to stakeholders, such as to the DCMS and NGBs, and begin offering one-to-one support with contracts, anti-doping, and selections. But almost everyone worked voluntarily, and the organisation relied on the goodwill of its athlete board and other supporters to help provide expertise and legwork.
“The credit really needs to go to all of those volunteers, the chairs of the working groups, the board, the people giving up their time – huge amounts of their time – for free,” Gardner says. “It wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened without all of them.
“It was on a shoestring, it was very much trying to find expertise where we could find it… It became immediately apparent how necessary and key it was for the athletes to have that voice.”
Early successes included the athlete pension scheme enabling athletes to benefit from their savings for life after sport, and the Athletes Direct programme which allowed athletes to earn money from school visits and public speaking.
The organisation continued to represent and support athletes with a small pool of staff, but it was in 2017 that it began to grow to today’s size. Paralympian Vicki Aggar joined as Chair, and says of the time: “There were a couple of really big [athlete] grievances with a couple of big sports… UK Sport recognised that the athlete voice and athlete wellbeing needed to be better supported.”
The BEAA’s funding increased to £1m until the end of the Tokyo Games cycle, with Aggar building a team of formally trained caseworkers for the first time. That preparation was vital, soon allowing the BEAA to support its members through one of sport’s most challenging periods.
“We were flagging concerns for quite a while about gymnastics,” Aggar recalls. “Through the help of the gymnasts who were brave enough to speak out and others in the media we were able to put public pressure on [an independent] review.
“Once Anne Whyte was commissioned by UK Sport and Sport England, a helpline was set up and the BAC was asked to support in receiving complaints. Almost overnight we set up a partnership with the NSPCC and got NSPCC staff seconded to us to receive any complaints.
“I’m pretty certain that within 72 hours we had over 100 people call the helpline. We had to get more staff in from the NSPCC, which was funded by UK Sport and Sport England. It was beyond the remit of the BAC but we mobilised really quickly and did an amazing job in receiving complaints and then providing support to those people making complaints.”
By the time the Whyte Review was published the BEAA had supported over 280 individuals and their families affected by abuse or mistreatment in gymnastics.
“I was really proud of the staff,” Aggar says. “It was really difficult for those on the ground hearing some of the stories that came in; it was quite shocking. I was really proud of the team for providing the support they did.”
Aggar’s time leading the BEAA came to an end in 2022, around which time the organisation had received another funding boost and was able to start expanding its work into providing athlete networks and a home for Britain’s elite athlete alumni.
“It was amazing to watch the progress the BAC had been making under Vicki’s leadership and Sarah’s [Newton, Director of Operations] careful management,” says Anna Watkins, an athlete board member from 2015-18. “I was delighted to see from a distance the standing of the organisation growing and improving.”
Shortly before Aggar left Watkins took over as CEO, pledging the BEAA to ‘lead the way’ in British sport’s culture change.
“What I find amazing is when I look back at the original founding documents of the BAC the objectives of our organisation still ring really true,” she says. “We’ve always been around athlete welfare, getting athlete voice into the room and connecting athletes with support and opportunities. What’s changed over time is our capacity to do those things and our standing, recognition and ability to get in and make a difference.
“I feel we’re not reinventing anything from the athletes who founded us, we’re just in a position to realise that vision more than ever.
“The conversation used to feel like if you were challenging welfare elements then you were challenging competitive sport itself. You were challenging whether it was okay to go out and try to win.
“Now it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like the conversation has absolutely moved on and is absolutely that welfare standards should be there, the duty of care should be there, and we should all aspire for this experience to be hugely positive for athletes, whether they win or don’t win – that their lives are better for the experience. That acknowledgement and agreement that we are trying to win and trying to win well is exciting.”
Continuing its purpose 20 years after founding, the BEAA retains its original aims. To this day Peter Gardner remains proud of the organisation’s role over two decades.
“I’ve got a young daughter who’s just followed me into the world of rowing,” he says.
“It’s so nice now knowing she can go into that world and there’s a support network there. That’s the greatest thing I can say: knowing all the dangers, pitfalls and pratfalls, if things do go sideways for her I’m really happy there’s an organisation that’s fit for purpose to look after her.
“When you become a parent you suddenly become hugely protective. Without an organisation like the BEAA I’d have had even more concern about her going down that path… But just seeing the work that’s been done, carried on and grown, is wonderful. Life is not always perfect for athletes or anybody, but the expertise and the professionalism is great.
“Seeing how it’s grown, and seeing the access to advice and support, is absolutely huge.”