Germany’s former rowing world champion Lenka Dienstbach-Wech, who is Chair of the World Rowing Federation (FISA)’s Athletes Commission, speaks in detail about how the Commission is putting the needs of the athletes first and her plans for the future.

 I’ve been chair of the FISA Athletes Commission since 2012, and during that time we’ve managed to transform into a commission that’s actually providing services for athletes. We’re constantly trying to think of problems that need solving for our athletes. We’re helping with day-to-day issues.

Just last year, we had an outreach project with WADA, so we’ve become more and more needs-focused and proactive with our athletes. Not just in providing feedback to FISA, but also in going out and actually seeking athletes’ engagement.

Increasing visibility

What I’m really proud of is that we have increased our visibility. I think, before, athletes didn’t know a lot about the Commission. But during my time as the Chair, we’ve managed to say there is an Athletes’ Commission actually doing something.

They know there’s a Commission acting on their behalf, so they don’t hesitate to get into contact with us. We’re trying to guide them through the channels they need to go through. It’s not perfect, but we’re on the way.

Empowerment through education

We carry out questionnaires to receive straight, timely answers from athletes. We also try to help athletes with their transition process or their learning by offering such programmes as the IOC Athlete Career Programme and getting them in contact with networks that are trying to make programmes more accessible.

Education is crucial, and we will implement that this year at the World Rowing Junior Championships. We think that education has to come to the junior athletes, because it’s usually their first international competition. They aren’t fully aware what’s going on around them. We want them to feel empowered to say no to doping, for example.

I’m sure a lot of federations run these programmes, but in FISA it’s driven by the athletes. I think that’s one of the biggest differences. Our Athletes Commission is actually sitting down and thinking about what our athletes need and finding solutions. We’re trying to think ahead and make a difference.

 Plans for the future

My term ends in 2019, but one of the things I would like to tackle is the well-being part: mental and physical well-being, safe sport environment, and protection from sexual harassment or any abuse in sport. We don’t really have a set system in place where athletes can turn to a person for help.

That’s my goal for the next two years, which I will try to establish so athletes have someone they can turn to, be comfortable with and who can simply just advise or steer them in the right direction.

My next step

To be a true athletes’ representative, you have to have a connection with the athletes, so a term limit is a really sensible thing. I would really push for my successor to be someone who is still active or has just retired, so then she or he has more of a connection to those competing.

I would like to remain within FISA or some sports organisation to continue working for the benefit of athletes. Coming from an athletic background and working so long in athletes’ representation, you just want to continue and use what you’ve learned.