Medals at all costs? Kamila Valieva discovered the ‘ice cold’ reality of failure

Anabel Timmins

The ISR interview recently conducted with Rachael Denhollander regarding sexual abuse at USA gymnastics (USAG) for International Women’s Day 2022 was recorded before the Winter Olympics. However, the scenes of a 15-year-old girl caught up in a doping scandal less than 10 years after Russia was found to have engaged in a scheme to ‘steal the Sochi’ Olympics, has resonance; both with the abuse experienced at USAG, and with recent geo-political events, where Russia clearly refuses to play by the rules. This blog entry by Annabel Timmins of LimeCulture sheds light.

Less than 10 years after Russia attempted to ‘steal’ the Sochi Olympics through systematic doping fraud, 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who had failed a drugs test but had (inexplicitly) been allowed to compete, failed to win a medal. After being on the front page of every newspaper in the world, the pressure had clearly been too much, and she fell during her last performance.

The ice-cold scenes of her being berated by her coach, when she didn’t meet the exacting standards expected of her, was a tough watch. But what now? How has this changed what we do?  It is the path of least resistance to watch it unfold, feel uncomfortable, comment and move on.  We would be saddened but not surprised if a similar story unfolds in Paris in 2024, or down the road in a sports club in the next town on Saturday.

Can we justify our own inaction by considering Valieva’s conciliatory words to her coach: ‘You not only train, but also teach how to overcome yourself, which helps not only in sport but also in life’? I would argue not. 

To stand by and accept such treatment of athletes is to reinforce the acceptability of psychological abuse.  Collectively, we would be reinforcing the priority of performance over compassion, and the reach of this filters down from elite athletes through to grass roots participants. This is not an isolated incident taking place over 5,000 miles away or existing within the exclusive domain of authoritarian states. This is every day, in every sport.

The very definition of sport includes an element of competing. We are taught from a young age about winning and being the best. Social media oversharing children’s achievements, emphasising life’s medals is laying the groundwork for an unconscious tolerance for emotionally abusive training and coaching.

We watched the icy scene unfold thousands of miles away, in a setting unfamiliar to most of us, and allowed our everyday life to gradually wash away any sense of outrage. It is very simple to separate out what we have seen from what we do and who we are. We are professionals, parents, athletes, participants, volunteers. We are a collective army of resources and we could transform what can feel like watered down token values into something rock solid and impenetrable. We could put our collective outrage to good use by challenging what we see, modelling how we behave, expecting our shared values to be evidenced.

So what about the argument that Valiera’s coach gets results at the highest level? For every Eteri Tutberidze there is a coach who sees the child before the athlete. US gymnast Simone Biles was rightly applauded for stepping back from elite competition when she recognised it was not right for her to continue. We have a part to play in creating a culture where such fundamental acts of self-preservation are not seen as brave and requiring extreme self-confidence. Such acts should be accepted as a fundamental right of all athletes at any level.

We can support this to happen by not accepting abusive coaching methods, living out our values, dusting off and promoting policies that reinforce human rights. We need to teach children the acceptance of not always achieving and not lose the joy of taking part. Be outraged by what you saw and use that to make changes.

Annabel Timmins is Safeguarding in Sport Manager at LimeCulture, the UK’s leading sexual violence training and consultancy organisation.

Photo by Thomas Laukat from Pexels

Ukraine Replay?: Re-navigating Work in Professional Basketball in Conflict Spaces

Laura Purdy (Edge Hill University) and Geoff Kohe (University of Kent)

The increasing attention on Ukraine jogged memories of the Euromaidan upheaval in 2013/14 and parallel regional uncertainties over Ukraine-Russia relations. At this time, civil unrest arose over the government decision to halt signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union. Within Ukraine, pro-EU protests escalated into a larger social and political upheaval and a separatist war led by ethnic Russians in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine.

In trying to sustain normalcy, it is not unusual for sport to continue in conflict zones as means to provide comfort and a sense of routine; from community sport participants and fans who play and spectate, through to professional sports workers (e.g., athletes, coaches, administrators) who need to maintain careers. While in times of crises experiences of all individuals are important, little is known about how professional sports workers manage geopolitical crises.

Our ongoing research within the European sport sector, however, provides insights on how various global and regional forces (e.g., financial crises, Brexit, etc.) affect sporting lives, careers and organisations. Focusing primarily on Baltic and Balkan regions (precariously positioned in the semi-periphery between West and East European tensions), we examine experiences of sports workers in men’s professional basketball, one of the most predominant sports in these regions. 

By the start of Euromaidan, the Ukrainian men’s basketball league was strengthening in quality and popularity. One club was playing in the EuroCup, the second-tier competition in Europe, aspired to qualify for Euroleague, the top league. Consequently, it was attracting international players of high quality. FIBA Europe capitalised on this momentum and selected Ukraine to host the 2015 European men’s basketball championships. Hosting the event would positively impact the sport through facility investment which would improve the league quality and attract new talent and sponsorship.

When conflict arose, the basketball federation reacted by temporarily suspending the league and reducing season length. As conflict worsened, clubs lost sponsors and were forced to conserve finances, use cheaper, poorer-standard facilities, release players from contracts, and reduce medical support. For players, salary payments were delayed, and for some, stopped. Individual responses varied according to their nationality. For non-Ukrainians, consulates provided clear communication, and ultimately advised them to leave the country. Those who could leave, did. Consequently, the standard of the league dropped, teams collapsed, and players who could not source a new contract faced unemployment. 

This disruptive season left an adverse legacy for the sport, with conditions resembling that of the previous decade. Research on these experiences contribute to important questions within and beyond sport relating to workers’ welfare, organisational and employment sustainability, duties of care, contractual securities, and mobility opportunities. While experiences of past conflict may provide some optimism and resilience, basketball sports workers in Ukraine now find themselves in the position in which they may be revisited by the challenges of the 2013/14 season, with perhaps a more uncertain endgame. 

Dr Laura Purdy is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sport and Physical Activity and a member of the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS) at Edge Hill University.

Dr Geoff Kohe is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Management & Policy in the School of Sport & Exercise Science at the University of Kent.

NOTE: This article was written earlier in the week, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine today, Thursday 24th February 2022.

Photo by Izuddin Helmi Adnan on Unsplash

Abuse in Sport: An Academic Forum

Dr Melanie Lang

The Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS) launched its own seminar series on 10th November with the support of the Institute for Social Responsibility (ISR). The special 2-hour online event was opened by Professor Jo Crotty, Director of ISR, and Dr Melanie Lang, CPSS assistant director and convenor of the seminar series.

The series launch featured talks from Dr Natalie Barker-Ruchti, Associate Professor of Sport Management and Sport Coaching from Öbrero University in Sweden, and Professor Leanne Norman, Professor of Sport and Socio-cultural Studies and Director of the Research Centre for Social Justice in Sport and Society at Leeds Beckett University.

The event was attended by more than 50 delegates from the UK, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia and the US. Delegates included safeguarding professionals from the statutory, voluntary and private sectors, such as the police and criminal justice service, Premier League football clubs, and national and international children’s charities.

The event’s popularity is evidence of the prominence of safeguarding and welfare issues in sport, following a series of damaging, high-profile allegations of athletes being abused and harassed by coaches in the UK and beyond.

Dr Barker-Ruchti explored how a process of gendering shapes how individuals experience themselves and their lives and illustrated how this process can lead to abusive practices in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics. Dr Barker-Ruchti’s work is especially timely given the soon-to-be-released Whyte review, an independent review into allegations about mistreatment within British Gymnastics.

Meanwhile, Professor Norman spoke about how a recent project into gender equity within elite-level sports coaching in athletics revealed serious issues of sexual discrimination, harassment, and abuse of female coaches and athletes. Professor Norman went on to highlight what sport can do to develop a more gender-balanced coaching workforce and promote the inclusion of different groups of women within the profession while eradiating abuse.

The seminar series aims to facilitate research networking, knowledge exchange, and continuing professional development in a friendly, relaxed environment and is free and open to all. The next seminar takes place online on Wednesday 15th December and will feature a talk from athlete activist, former elite gymnast and leading campaigner for change within gymnastics, Claire Heafford. Details and booking available here.

To learn more about CPSS, its members and their work in safeguarding and welfare in sport, see here.

To watch the recording of the inaugural research seminar, click here.

Dr Melanie Lang is an ISR Fellow, assistant director Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport and reader in child protection in sport in the Department of Social Sciences at Edge Hill University.

Covid-19 and Sport: Some Positive Outcomes for Athletes and Athlete Welfare

Covid Anniversary Blog

As outdoor sports facilities open and organised sports clubs begin to welcome back members, it’s uplifting to note that there have been numerous positive developments in safeguarding children and young people in this sector recently. These include:

  • In its latest 10-year plan, Sport England, the body responsible for grassroots sport, have named safeguarding as one of their five main themes and have substantially increased investment into helping sports clubs and national federations create safer sports environments.
  • The ‘Safe to Play’ campaign, which aims to ensure young people know how to report a safeguarding concern, was successfully rolled out in tennis in England throughout last year’s lockdowns and is being expanded to other sports this year.
  • The government agreed last month (March 2021) to change the law around positions of trust to include adults in supervisory positions in sport, making it illegal for coaches and others in authority positions over athletes in sport to have sex with 16 and 17 year olds in the same way it is for teachers and pupils.

In addition, one of the most inspiring safeguarding development from the past 12 months has come from the young female gymnasts who spoke out against the toxic culture in their sport (see here). Researchers of athlete welfare like myself know how practices such as fat shaming, enforced training while injured, physical violence, and emotional abuse have become so entrenched in some sports that they often go unchallenged.

Physical and emotional abuse rarely attract as much attention or elicit the same emotion as sexual abuse, yet their consequences can be just as devastating. Working together and using the hashtag #gymnastalliance to draw attention to the impact of non-sexual abuse, which are by far the most prevalent forms of abuse in sport, these brave young women forced the sports authorities to act.

A review is now underway into abuse in the sport and British Gymnastics’ handling of complaints, and some athletes are suing the sports’ governing body for negligence and breach of duty. Such unprecedented action has sparked a global movement of athletes speaking out against the dangerous and degrading practices that have become normalised as part of many sports. Through collective action and dogged determination, these young athletes are opening up a positive conversation for long-term change. 

The restrictions placed on all our lives during the pandemic have (re)ignited people’s love of sport and physical activity and reminded us all of its importance for our mental and physical health. In particular, lockdown has encouraged teenage girls who were previously not active to do more sport and physical activity. If sport is to capitalise on this new-founded enthusiasm, it must ensure it provides everyone involved with a safe and positive environment. Thanks to the many young gymnasts who disclosed abuse over the past year, we are one step closer to ensuring this vision for sport.

Dr Mel Lang is Associate Director at the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS) at Edge Hill University.

Photo by Sandro Schuh on Unsplash

At the Heart of Gold: Rethinking Athlete Welfare

According to experts at a recent public event supported by the Institute for Social Responsibility (ISR), sports organisations need to rethink how they approach athlete welfare, to ensure they are meeting their legal and moral obligations, and to provide a healthy and safe environment.

Abuse and maltreatment in sport have featured heavily in national and international headlines in recent years. Against this backdrop, Dr Melanie Lang, assistant director of The Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS), hosted a successful public event on understanding and developing athlete welfare on 9th November 2020. The event was timed to celebrate Dr Lang’s latest book, The Routledge Handbook of Athlete Welfare.

The free online event was attended by athletes, academics, and safeguarding and welfare in sport policymakers and professionals from organisations including national governing bodies of sport, the Ann Craft Trust, and the International Centre for Ethics in Sport in Belgium. Delegates were drawn from the UK, Belgium, Cyprus, Sweden, and Spain.

The event featured presentations from four speakers and was opened by Professor Jo Crotty, Director of the ISR. In the first presentation, Dr Lang called for more resources to be directed towards non-sexual forms of abuse in sport. Highlighting research indicating that emotional abuse is the most prevalent form of abuse in sport, yet the least likely to be reported, Dr Lang argued that sports organisations must do more to raise awareness of and act on this form of abuse. Dr Lang provided examples of how athletes can be empowered to speak out about abuse and what sports organisations can do to better respond to under-recognised forms of abuse.

In the second presentation, Dr Geoff Kohe from the University of Kent and CPSS member, and Edge Hill University senior lecturer Dr Laura Purdy discussed care ethics in sport. They highlighted how a particular narrow conceptualisation of care has become normalised in sport, arguing this restricts understandings of welfare. Drs Kohe and Purdy advocated for a broader understanding of athlete welfare and more nuanced conceptualisations of care that are more responsive to athlete needs.

Finally, Professor Hayley Fitzgerald of Leeds Beckett University and the University of Worcester discussed the welfare of disabled people in sport. Professor Fitzgerald noted that research focusing on safeguarding in sport in relation to disability is rare, and that what little is known has tended to come from studies that investigated welfare issues in the general sport population rather than specifically exploring the experiences of disabled participants. Professor Fitzgerald argued that an embedded approach is needed whereby issues of disability are infused within generic safeguarding approaches rather than disabled athletes being treated as a separate category of concern.

The event concluded with a lively discussion between delegates and panellists on a range of welfare issues affecting athletes and other sport stakeholders.

To learn more about the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport, its members and their work in safeguarding and welfare in sport, please visit the CPSS website.

Dr Melanie Lang is Assistant Director for the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS), and Senior Lecturer Child Protection in Sport at Edge Hill University.

Image by Michal Navrat from Pixabay

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COVID-19 and Child Abuse in Institutions

The implications of measures taken to reduce the impact the lockdown for children (and adults) who reside with violent, abusive or exploitative partners and family members have been widely highlighted. For those in such circumstances, ‘keeping the NHS safe’ and ‘saving lives by staying at home’ comes at a very high price.

It is well recognised that the majority of child abuse occurs in the home. However, government inquiries into child abuse within institutional settings have been ongoing since the early 1990s. The current national inquiry (see IICSA) into sexual abuse within institutions in England and Wales has been running since 2014.

At the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport, our research focuses on abuse and maltreatment in sport contexts. In my research with ‘survivors’ of child sexual abuse in sport, I hear repeatedly how they felt trapped within the relationship and unable to tell anyone about the abuse they were experiencing. For some, home was a sanctuary that offered some temporary respite.

So, for at least some children and young people experiencing abuse, home isolation and ‘social distancing’ may feel like a dream come true rather than their worst nightmare.

For any type of abuse, including that perpetrated online, opportunity is fundamental. Often (but not always) the opportunity to be physically close to a child, in an isolated space, is a key facilitating factor. Thus whilst close proximity with those outside the home is currently restricted, there may be a small window of opportunity to break the connection between some children and their abusers, permanently.  

Families are crucial to this. But – if you are a parent/guardian of a child who is being sexually abused or exploited, it is highly likely that your child will have made the decision to conceal what is happening to them. An abused child’s life becomes a near permanent exercise in deception. They quickly learn to employ all their creative resources to prevent those closest to them from discovering their secret. Of course, this does not mean they aren’t desperately searching for a way to escape the abuse.

Enforced social distancing may have presented some children with an alternative version of their reality. A glimpse of something different, better. Undoubtedly their abuser(s) will be working hard to maintain their hold, to keep the child trapped within their version of reality. Children who find themselves in a sexually or physically abusive relationship outside the home are hopefully experiencing some relief. But as they observe our determined national efforts to ‘return to normal’, they also sense this will be short-lived.

So, for some children, the current crisis does present an opportunity, but it is one that adults – within and beyond the family – must take advantage of.

Specialist organisations provide useful support on talking to children and young people and identifying signs of sexual abuse and exploitation. Further safeguarding advice, information and resources relating to COVID-19 are also available from the GOV.UK website. If you’re worried that a child or young person is at risk or is being abused contact the children’s social care team at their local council.

Dr Mike Hartill is Director of the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS) at Edge Hill University.

Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash