What do we mean when we talk about safe sport?

Safe sport is defined as an athletic environment that is respectful, equitable and free from all forms of harassment and abuse.

Harassment and abuse can take different forms, and it can be difficult to recognise when it’s happening. It’s important, then, to understand what falls under this category. But remember, such definitions can vary between countries and organisations.

In this document we will use the definitions provided in the IOC Consensus Statement: harassment and abuse in sport (2016).

There are different categories of harassment and abuse. Each can occur in isolation or in combination with one or more of the others.

  • Psychological abuse:

Psychological abuse is at the core of all other forms of harassment and abuse. It is considered the “gateway” to other types of abuse.

Psychological abuse can consist of behaviours that belittle, humiliate, scapegoat, reject or isolate an athlete. It often involves shouting and threats, but can also manifest in the form of neglect, like not offering attention or support.

It is often a pattern of deliberate, prolonged, repeated non-contact behaviour by a person of authority on an individual of lesser status.

  • Sexual abuse:

Sexual abuse is any conduct of a sexual nature, whether non-contact, contact or penetrative, where consent is coerced/manipulated or is not or cannot be given.

  • Sexual harassment:

Sexual harassment is any unwanted and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, whether verbal, non-verbal or physical. Sexual harassment can take the form of sexual abuse.

Here are some examples:

Maria is an 18-year-old rower. She has recently realised her dream of being selected for the national team by taking part in a qualifying event for the Olympic Games. Maria is a talented athlete with great potential, who is respected in her sport. She lives with her parents and five older brothers.

During the qualifying events for the Games, team leader Gianni gets Maria to take the team’s picnic from the hotel to the rowing venue. During the first day’s training, her coach, Georgio stands on the bank and shouts at her: “Come on, darling, faster, faster! You can do it, sweetie!”

At the end of the training session, the team are physically exhausted. When they are leaving the rowing lake, one of the male team members asks Maria to carry his bag back to the hotel. Later on, when she is recovering from the training session in the hotel where the team are staying, Maria receives a phone call from Gianni: “Hello darling, the guys in the team need you to do their washing for them. You can wash mine too, while you’re at it. And we need it tonight, ready for training tomorrow.”

It’s nice to help people out, but don’t let them take advantage of you. Don’t be afraid to say “NO” if you can’t do what you are asked, or if it’s not convenient. If you get the impression that someone is going too far and exploiting your gender, of if you feel humiliated or hurt, talk about it with someone you trust. A person’s sex has no bearing on whether they are better or worse at doing a particular task.

Helga is a 16-year-old discus thrower on the youth national team. She has recently come to the national training centre, a long way from her home town, for a period of training to prepare for a major competition. Trond, who is 17, is a hammer thrower, and is also on the national team. As they’re both throwers, Helga and Trond are scheduled to train together in the weights room and in the stadium. At first they’re friends, and she accepts him as a new friend on Facebook. But Helga gradually starts to notice that Trond keeps staring at her breasts during the stretching session, which makes her feel uncomfortable. Then he starts sending inappropriate text messages and posting sexual comments about her on his Facebook profile.

One day, as he goes past her on the way to the weights room, Trond calls out: “Let’s work hard today – to keep that pretty little arse nice and firm!” Helga goes red.

During the training sessions that follow, Helga tries to keep her distance from Trond. But one evening, as she’s leaving the stadium to get the metro, Trond is waiting for her by a wall. He’s waiting so that he can walk with her. As Helga goes past him, Trond calls out to her: “My parents are away. Come to my place and we can have some fun. I know what you want!”

Nobody has the right to act like that. It’s your body. If, like Helga, you feel uncomfortable or humiliated by the comments or actions of someone in your entourage, talk about it with a person you trust, or write about it using the hotline. 

  • Physical abuse:

Physical abuse is non-accidental trauma or physical injury caused by punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning or otherwise harming an athlete.

This could include forced or mandated inappropriate physical activity (for example, age-, or physique-inappropriate training loads; training when injured or in pain); direct physical abuse, dangerous training methods, unsafe sporting environments, forced alcohol consumption; or systematic doping practices.

  • Neglect:

Neglect is defined as the failure to meet a person’s physical and emotional needs when the means, knowledge and access to services to do so exist; or failure to protect them from exposure to danger.

In sport, neglect can result in preventable accidents, recurrent injuries, malnutrition, eating disorders, dehydration and self-harm behaviours.

  • Homophobia:

Homophobia is defined in the IOC Consensus Statement (2016) as antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion or hatred towards lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals.

Here’s an example: Jack is an 18-year-old in his final year of school. He specialises in the butterfly, and excels over 200 metres. He holds the national record for his age group. At the pool, younger swimmers watch Jack admiringly. He is also an excellent student. He gets the best marks in his class; he has chaired the student council for two years; and each year he leads a group of students for a volunteer project working with homeless people. His family are very supportive and proud of his sporting achievements, especially his father, who was a professional basketball player. His team mates are beginning to wonder why Jack doesn’t have a girlfriend.

But Jack is secretly questioning his sexual orientation. He realises that he is attracted to boys. He becomes anxious and starts keeping away from other people. One day at school, one of the football team members calls Jack “the gayboy”. The other students make fun of him. He can’t wait to get home and escape the mocking.

Jack’s father has already heard about this incident from the parent of another pupil. He’s furious, and as soon as Jack gets home, shouts at him for bringing shame on his family. Jack runs down the stairs and out of the house, slamming the door.

At training that evening, it’s clear to Jack that everyone has already heard about the “gayboy” incident at school. That same evening, the team captain for the national competition the following week is to be chosen. Jack hopes it will be him: he’s a born leader and the obvious choice. The team vote, and at the end of the training session the captain’s name is announced: it’s not Jack. Jack also learns that evening that one of his team mates had told the coach he didn’t want to share a bedroom with Jack during the competition. In fact, none of the other boys in the team wants to share a room with him.

Everyone is free to live with their sexuality as they wish. Nobody has the right to judge you. Some people are still very prejudiced and can be hurtful. If you feel hurt, humiliated or rejected, don’t be afraid to talk about it with someone you trust, or who has been through the same experience. 

  • Hazing:

Hazing means an organised, usually team-based, form of bullying in sport, involving degrading and hazardous initiation of new team members by veteran team members

Here’s an example: Javier, a 17-year-old sportsman, has just heard that he’s been selected for the junior national team in his sport. He lives a long way from the national training centre and is very keen to move to the city to realise his dream.

He reaches the training camp on the day before training is due to start. The team captain, Juan Manuel, gives him a handwritten letter inviting him to a “team welcome celebration” in his bedroom that same evening.

When he arrives in the captain’s bedroom, he’s welcomed by the other new members and five older members of the team. There’s no sign of the coach or any other adult. He’s given a beer and notices a big barrel placed on a table. The music is loud, and several of the team members are singing loudly in a corner.

Juan Manuel’s job is to distribute the drinks and organise the activities. He gets all the new arrivals to take part in a beer-drinking contest and then race naked in the hotel corridor. The other older team members start applauding and singing to encourage the team. Javier has never experienced anything like this before, and feels very uncomfortable.

The more beer is drunk, the louder the noise becomes. Then Juan Manuel announces a special initiation ritual for the team. There’s a knock at the door and an almost naked girl comes in. She starts dancing provocatively and touches all the new team members in an explicit way. Javier feels increasingly uncomfortable and tries to get as far away as possible from the girl…

Joining a new team can be complicated, and we always want to try and fit in. It’s always fun to spend time away from sport with your team mates or other athletes. But if a situation makes you feel uncomfortable, you have the right to say “Stop!” It’s important to learn to protect yourself. If you feel embarrassed or humiliated, or if things get out of hand, tell your entourage about it immediately.

  • Eating disorders:

Many athletes have image problems linked to their appearance or weight. This may be harmful to both their mental and physical health. Problems like anorexia or bulimia are frequent, and may have serious consequences, like the female athlete triad. This is a syndrome involving three pathologies: a lack of energy (caused by poor diet habits or physical overtraining); amenorrhea (absence of menstruation); and osteoporosis (weakening of the bones due to a drop-in bone density and an imbalance in bone formation). A female athlete may suffer from all or some of these pathologies. Learn more about this here: https://www.olympicresources.com/Home/Welcome. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses linked to their body. Remember that it’s important to eat a balanced diet if you want to perform, and comparing yourself to others isn’t a solution.

Practising sport safely is about more than simply avoiding injuries. A healthy body image and the prevention of harassment and abuse in sport are two subjects on which the IOC is working constantly, to raise awareness and safeguard athletes. If any of these examples strike a chord with you, don’t be afraid to talk about it. For more information on harassment and abuse in sport, visit the Safeguarding section of Athlete365  

Abuse in sport: Try out the IOC educational tool related to the prevention of harassment and abuse in sport

Athlete Learning Gateway: If you want to find out more about this topic, check out the “Safeguarding Athletes from Harassment and Abuse” course via the IOC’s Athlete Learning Gateway.

Female triad: Learn more about the female athlete triad.

Body image: Watch some stories about body image. 

Helpline: Want to talk but don’t know who to tell?  Talk about it via the Child Helpline