Former international swimmer Dr Jennifer McMahon spoke from personal experience about the ‘normalisation’ of certain types of abuse within sport

Experts offered advice on implementing evidence-based education programmes and effective reporting procedures as part of robust Safe Sport policies

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The webinar, which was co-hosted by the Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC), brought together leading experts from across the Pacific Region to help raise awareness of the important topic of athlete safeguarding and facilitate the implementation of Safe Sport initiatives.

Speakers included ONOC President Dr Robin Mitchell, who provided the opening address; Helen Brownlee and Liz Dawson, from ONOC’s Gender Equity Commission; Abigail Erikson, who delivered a presentation on UN Women’s ‘Ending Violence against Women’ programme; Oceania Sports Education Programme (OSEP) coordinator Sainimili Saukuru; Childfund’s Sport for Development Director Chris Mastaglio; and Julia King, who is chair of the Vanuatu NOC’s Women in Sport Commission.

“Harassment and abuse happen in sport, just like they happen in society, and there are some factors within the sports culture which may increase the risk of abuse of care,” explained Karo Lelai, chair of the ONOC Athletes’ Commission. “It is our role to implement initiatives to stop this and to make sure that all athletes are able to train and compete to the best of their ability and in safe environments. Just because you have not had a case reported does not mean that it is not happening.”

Just because you have not had a case reported does not mean that it is not happening.

 

ONOC ATHLETES’ COMMISSION CHAIR, KARO LELAI

I felt that they were doing what was best for me, what was necessary to push me to new heights, but it was actually abuse

 

DR JENNIFER MCMAHON

Rejecting the ‘no pain, no gain’ sports culture

One of the recurring themes of the webinar was that many types of abuse and harassment have been normalised within sport, with athletes falsely believing that they are a necessary part of training and competition, and the importance of breaking this cycle.

Dr Jennifer McMahon, a former international swimmer for Australia and now a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Tasmania, spoke from her own harrowing personal experiences as an athlete when addressing the issue.

“To the outsider, I was achieving great things, which I guess I was, winning a Commonwealth Games gold medal at the age of 15. However, behind the scenes, there was a lot of trauma that I was experiencing,” she said.

“I was subjected to various abuses by Australian team coaches as well as from my mother in the name of competitive performance. At the time, and desperate to be successful, I felt that they were doing what was best for me, what was necessary to push me to new heights, but it was actually abuse. I was often ridiculed for my body shape, punished with extra running, socially isolated when I did not perform, hit when I did not achieve a personal best time or win a race. I was also hit when I got injured or sick, as that ultimately would affect my performance.”

Dr McMahon’s academic research has since focused on abuse in sport, athlete well-being, education interventions centering on abuse and coach education, and her findings indicate that normalisation of abuse such as this is still prevalent within sport.

“My decade of research has found that sporting insiders such as athletes, coaches, team managers, parents, and medical professionals have normalised many of these types of abuse, as they perceive them necessary for competitive performance,” she explained. “My research showed that athletes expect that they will be yelled at by their coach or team manager. They expect that they’re going to be ridiculed for poor performance.”

Karo Lelai, chair of the ONOC Athletes’ Commission, believes that rejecting this normalisation of abuse is a critical step in addressing the issue within sport.

“It is important that we continue to try to break the cycle and reinforce that all forms of abuse are detrimental to athletes’ health and performance,” she said. “And we must reject a no pain, no gain sports culture.”

‘Education needs to be tailored and evidence-based’

Referring to the IOC Consensus Statement on Harassment and Abuse in Sport, Dr McMahon highlighted that education should be the cornerstone of any Safe Sport strategy and that all levels of sporting organisations need to be targeted with education, from international sport executives to local volunteers, athletes, and athletes’ entourage members.

“Not just any education needs to be implemented, it needs to be culturally tailored for each of these parties, and it needs to be evidence-based,” added Dr McMahon. “When I say ‘evidence-based’, this means an education programme needs to have been previously trialled, tested, assessed, peer-reviewed, and adapted accordingly. This is really important because unless we know that the education has previously worked, why implement it to tackle such an important issue?”

According to McMahon, more research is also required in order to identify the specific types of abuse that athletes are experiencing in each geographic region, so that education programmes can be tailored to address these in particular.

“With the current state of affairs in regard to abuse, more research is definitely needed, particularly in regard to abuse statistics in the Oceania region and what types of abuse are most prevalent,” she said. “The education then needs to be tailored to tackle the behaviours occurring through these forms of abuse. For example, 40 per cent of athletes may be experiencing physical abuse, but what behaviours specifically are the most prevalent in Oceania sporting contexts? Education then needs to be tailored to address these.”

‘Robust reporting procedures are crucial’

From an athlete perspective, Karo Lelai highlighted the need to ensure that athletes feel comfortable speaking out about any abuse or harassment you may be experiencing by implementing robust reporting procedures.

“Why don’t athletes report?” she asked. “Reasons may include the fear of punishment, not being believed, being gossiped about, being excluded from sport, jeopardising social position, jeopardising sports privileges, and even uncertainty associated with the reporting process.

“A robust and clearly communicated reporting procedure is crucial, but even more important is that those procedures are survival focused and are developed in collaboration with athletes. The athletes’ voice must be welcomed, heard and respected. Receiving a report of harassment and abuse can be a good sign for an organisation. It means that there is trust in the system, the process and the organisation, and that the procedures are working.”

Are you an athlete or NOC representative, or simply interested in finding out more about the prevention of harassment and abuse in sport? Check out the schedule of upcoming webinars.

The athletes’ voice must be welcomed, heard, and respected.

 

ONOC ATHLETES’ COMMISSION CHAIR, KARO LELAI

You can access the full presentation here