Last updated: 28.02.20

Safeguarding athletes from abuse and harassment

Over the decades, there have been instances of athletes being abused or harassed within practically every sport out there. No matter which country you’re competing in, abuse of athletes can occur at any level of competition and it is the responsibility of everything operating within the sporting industry to help properly safeguard athletes. We’ve deconstructed the toolkit put together by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to give you a quick guide on some of the main points you need to be aware of in order to help protect athletes from harassment and abuse.

Why do we need to safeguard athletes?

Athletes are exposed to lots of pressures to perform well, which can put them in vulnerable positions where they are overworked, pushed passed their limits and worse. This can have long-lasting detrimental effects on the mental health and wellbeing of athletes as well as profoundly affect their post-career lives. Safeguarding athletes not only protects those working within the sport, it helps to promote the values of safe sport and maintains the integrity of the sport and any affiliated sporting organisations.

Defining harassment and abuse in sport

Having a proper outline of what constitutes abusive behaviour and harassment within your sport or sporting organisation will help you to identify offending behaviour and set out boundaries with staff so they understand when lines are crossed. It also allows you to address incidents which would result in further escalation if behaviour is particularly bad.

Any applicable laws should be taken into consideration when defining harassment and abuse, as well as aligning your definition with the wider IOC Consensus Statement released in 2016. These include:

  • Psychological abuse, such as verbal assault, isolation, intimidation, humiliation, etc.
  • Physical abuse, such as violent actions, creating physical trauma, inappropriate training and forced substance abuse or doping practices.
  • Sexual harassment, such as any unwanted or unwelcome conduct of any sort
  • Sexual abuse, such as any conduct of a sexual nature where consent is coerced or not given
  • Neglect, such as the failure to uphold the duty of care as a coach or other responsible individual

Harassment and abuse can stem from any number of different areas, in isolation or combination, including:

- Race

- Religion

- Colour

- Creed

- Ethnicity

- Physical Attributes

- Gender

- Age

- Sexual Orientation

- Socio-Economic Status

- Athletic Ability

Procedures for reporting abuse and harassment

Once you have outlined the definition of abuse and harassment within your organisation and set out who it is applicable to, you will need to create processes which people can use to raise abusive incident with. This will include reporting mechanisms, such as reports in writing, via email, and in person, which can be used to provide details that can be followed up on. Comprehensive details for how to do this can be found within the official IOC toolkit.

Using the right terminology

There are a number of terms used within the sporting sphere to refer to safeguarding measures, procedures and issues when it comes to athletes. One key term is Safe Sport – the idea of having all the procedures in place to allow sporting activities to be practiced safely without the immediate risks of abuse of harassment. Other useful terms are:

  • Athlete protection
  • Athlete welfare
  • Athlete safeguarding
  • Prevention of harassment and abuse
  • Non-accidental violence
  • Gender-based violence

These are key players in allowing your organisation to communicate effectively and put out the right messages which cover all the required bases. By communicating your policy clearly to all athletes and staff, you will be able to reassure all parties that safeguarding is a priority and that your organisation practices safe sport.

This will also allow you to educate any new staff properly on your internal safeguarding policy for athletes, delivering training which is consistent with content put out by third parties and avoid unnecessary confusion.

If you want to learn about safeguarding principles in more detail, whether that’s specifically for sport or a more general overview, then take a look at our range of online safeguarding courses. Each one can be delivered instantly via our online platform and carried out at your own place so you can ensure you’re taking in all of the content and fully understanding how you can help safeguard vulnerable people.

You can also check out our useful and informative downloadable resources, including this poster on the duty of care in sport.