As the entertainment industry faces increasing calls for reform to tackle the inherent levels of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour within, and more and more politicians are under scrutiny for similar acts, it is important to recognise the serious problems which are also facing those in sport.
Earlier this year, the US women’s World Cup winning goalkeeper Hope Solo accused Sepp Blatter of sexual harassment, alleging that he inappropriately touched her at the 2013 Ballon d’Or awards, just before the pair went on stage. At this point Blatter was president of FIFA, but he has avidly denied the allegations, dismissing them as ‘ridiculous’. Solo spoke out claiming that sexual harassment and assault are ‘rampant’ in women’s football.
This issue, however, is nothing new – it has been a growing problem over the past few years as more and more athletes have spoken about. Following the Rio Olympic games in 2016, an investigation by the Indianapolis Star revealed that USA Gymnastics, the national governing body of the sport, failed to report over 50 sexual abuse allegations to the authorities. The most high profile case in gymnastics came in a lawsuit against the team doctor for the United States Dr Larry Nassar, as two gymnasts brought forward cases against him.
Nassar was later convicted, sentenced for 40-175 years in prison for historic sexual abuse and will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Sexual abuse also appears to have been an issue in the swimming world, with over 100 swimming coaches for the United States banned for abuse claims. Former Olympian Katherine Starr spoke out about years of abuse she had experienced from a coach, which she only found the courage to reveal after she retired from competitive swimming.
“is there a convenient culture of ignorance?”
She explained in an article written for the Huffington Post that ‘while I knew my sport had monsters, I was naïve to think that they were mostly on the pool deck’ as ‘many of my Olympic friends were sexually abused by male elite swimmers, in some instances already celebrated Olympians’. One of the most publicized cases coming from swimming shows that this has not just been a problem amongst Olympians or world champions, but the conduct of college athletes is also a serious issue. Brock Turner, the celebrated Stanford University swimmer who was witnessed raping an unconscious woman outside of a campus party, was sentenced to only 6 months in jail, despite the normal sentencing requirement being at least 2 years, if not in the range of 6-14 years. Many placed this decision on his potential as an athlete, causing immense controversy. Does the leniency that was displayed towards Brock Turner reflect the culture of ignoring the actions of athletes due to their medal-winning potentials?
A Canadian study has revealed that 8.1% of athletes can be found to have been raped by someone within their sporting community, whether it be a coach, doctor or another athlete. This is an incredibly shocking statistic and raises serious questions about the safety of athletes, and their vulnerability to those who hold some level of power over the success of their career.
There have been some efforts to instigate change in the sporting world, as Katherine Starr started an organisation called Safe4Atheletes, which advocates for the establishment of clear boundaries between coaches and athletes. It also seeks to educate young people about what the coach-athlete relationship should look like, and what should not be included in that power relationship.
“power’s propensity for manipulation is dangerous”
As within Hollywood and politics, power has more dangers than one might have expected. With power, aggressors have found they can abuse and assault those who may depend on them for careers, medals, health, or motivation, and that they can avoid consequences because of their ability cover it up, and because of their perceived importance in aiding a team to win medals or tournaments. Clearly, the sporting world has serious changes to make to ensure athletes are protected from sexual abuse, and to ensure that their voices can be heard.