Dr Laura Purdy and Dr Mel Lang

Five athletes crossing the finishing line of a track race.

2022 has been a big year for sport, with fans glued to the women’s Euros, the Winter Olympics, Paralympics, the Commonwealth Games, and the men’s and women’s Cricket World Cups. Yet it’s also been a big year in sport for a different reason: it’s the year when the welfare of athletes, in particular the consequences of physical and emotional abuse and other forms of maltreatment such as overtraining and fat shaming, came to public prominence.

The light shone on this following the publication of damning reviews into major sports organisations globally, indicates the growing number of high-profile athlete disclosures of abuse. Consequently, sport organisations are being held accountable for delivering a safe sports environment and promoting positive sport practices.

To do this, sports organisations have implemented initiatives aimed at developing what’s often referred to as ‘safe sport’. Yet young athletes are often excluded from these intitiatives. To address this gap, we undertook research, supported by an ISR Award, that sought young athletes’ views on safe sport and what might empower them to effect change.

The project focused on student-athletes’ understandings of safe sport in Lithuania – a nation with a strong sporting history but where athlete welfare is rarely discussed. 17 undergraduate students who were regional- and national-level athletes in various sports joined workshops on topics relating to athlete welfare. In groups, the student-athletes then worked to identify a concern relating to athlete welfare in their nation and produced poster campaigns (in the Lithuanian language) on the topic. The posters were then distributed to national sport centres and sports schools nationwide. Their campaigns focused on issues such as pain and injury, overtraining, psychological abuse, and the athlete voice.

By empowering athletes to identify issues of relevance and importance to them, and through the process of developing and delivering a campaign, the student-athletes were actively constructing knowledge and action that not only connected safe sport to their lives, but also to the lives of others. The young athletes were clear how important their involvement was, as one explained:

“Because we’re young people, young people are sending message, and because we are young, we are athletes ourselves, maybe other athletes look at us and, ‘oh, but they are not afraid. I won’t be afraid’.”

This small project highlights that involving athletes in safe sport enables their voices to be heard and their experiences used for the improvement of sport.

Following the campaigns, the student-athletes saw possibilities for themselves in (re)shaping sport in their nation. As one said:

“I’m like, what can I do to make things better in my club maybe? And in Lithuanian [sport]? … And I’m sitting [thinking], ‘I can do that’ [or] maybe I can speak with someone? So, I’m like, are you ready to change? Because I’m definitely ready to make some change!”

There is momentum for change to make sport safer, and (young) athletes are central to making this happen.

Join Laura and Mel as they present their findings in more detail at the next Centre for Protection and Safeguarding in Sport webinar on Tuesday 8th November.