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Safety and Welfare Self-care and development

Duty of Care Debate: Where Will We Draw the Line on Athlete Welfare in Sport?

A panel of safeguarding experts comprising sporting luminaries and leading academics left an indelible mark on the minds of the audience who attended a virtual symposium hosted by Oxford Brookes University in partnership with UK Coaching. Presenters discussed the future direction of duty of care in sport and the need for accelerated organisational and cultural change. Blake Richardson presents a summary of the main talking points

When Chief Executive of UK Sport Sally Munday delivered the results of the high-performance agency’s 2019 ‘Culture Health Check’ survey, the tone of her voice brooked no argument.

“We are very clear that there is no place in sport for anyone who doesn’t want to behave to the highest standards of ethics and integrity,” she said in September.

“It is possible to be successful whilst embracing a culture that puts athletes’ welfare and well-being at its very core. I strongly reject that it is an either/or.”

As a statement of intent, in response to persistent criticism that athletes had become collateral damage in a system that values medals and prestige above all else, her message was unequivocal.

For anyone who doesn’t want to adhere to the highest standards of ethics and integrity, my message is clear: you are not welcome in Olympic and Paralympic sport,” she added, nailing her and UK Sport’s colours even more firmly to the mast.

The new zero-tolerance approach has left governing bodies in no doubt they must fully embrace the shift away from a sporting culture that for too long has prioritised medals and the pursuit of excellence over personal welfare.

Disclosures of alleged athlete abuse are nothing new, but the sudden spike in high-profile cases, across several sports, that generated such extensive media coverage, impelled the Government in 2015 to commission the help of Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson to produce an independent review into the Duty of Care that sport has towards its participants.

And while the consensus is that progress has been made since the release of that report in April 2017 – which contained a series of recommendations for improving standards of athlete welfare – in the eyes of many, the improvements in policy and practice have not gone far enough fast enough.

Ultimately, good intentions mean nothing if they aren’t backed up by good behaviours.

So where are we at currently?

With the help of cross-bench peer and nine-time Paralympic gold medallist Baroness Grey-Thompson, Assistant Director of the Centre for Child Protection & Safeguarding in Sport at Edge Hill University Dr Melanie Lang, and Olympic rowing silver medallist turned diplomat, and now consultant specialising in leadership and organisational culture, Dr Cath Bishop, we will identify the concerns, challenges and achievable solutions to the important topic of improving duty of care in sport.


As Baroness Grey-Thompson has previously told UK Coaching, “elite sport is tough and it’s challenging and we can’t make it all warm and cuddly.” But while everyone on the trajectory to elite level undertakes the journey with their eyes wide open and accepts demands will be placed on them physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and economically, the simple truth, she says, is that there is no price greater than athlete welfare, and coaches and organisations have a moral and legal obligation to recognise and conform to that overriding principle.

Dr Lang showed a picture of smiling Great Britain gymnast Amy Tinkler, aged 16, proudly showing off the bronze medal she won in the floor final at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Standing next to her are gold medallist Simone Biles and silver medallist Aly Raisman, of the United States.

“Every one of those gymnasts is a survivor of abuse or maltreatment and I find that shocking. Behind those smiling faces is actually one of the saddest images that I have ever seen,” said Dr Lang.

The image provided a powerful emotional context to the day’s theme, asking where we should draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour; a poignant reminder of the cost of winning a medal, with the surface smiles disguising a hidden pain.

The same can be said of British high-performance sport, that in recent memory has also been a picture of health. While the nation basked in the golden glow of three consecutive Olympic Games successes, under the rosy exterior lurked an unedifying truth. Outward appearances, in other words, can be deceptive and you need to dig deeper than the surface to find out what’s going on inside.

We have to own up that a culture of fear exists. Have some realism,” said Baroness Grey-Thompson.

“In sport there are amazing moments in time, but we can’t continue to hide behind the glamour side of elite sport without investigating and being really honest about the process it takes everybody to get there – coaches, administrators, athletes.”

Referring back to the “painful, powerful picture”, Dr Bishop gave her view on the price of success: “Is that really success that we want? No. It is not acceptable success if there’s that level of abuse that goes into winning a medal. We have to go back to what’s right and putting athlete welfare first. Then let’s explore what’s possible when we allow athletes to thrive in the sport and afterwards.”

For Dr Bishop, it’s not just what we win that matters, it’s how we win. But equally, and importantly, the pursuit of excellence and duty of care are not mutually exclusive objectives.

I don’t think [having a high standard of duty of care] will make the performance worse. I think we will have athletes who are having longer careers and they will talk positively about sport and will encourage the next generation.”

The discussion of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour isn’t always straightforward and debating the grey areas can be contentious. An intolerance of other people’s views is in vogue, but this cannot be allowed to thwart us in our quest to reach amicable resolutions.

If we are to continue to make progress, we must have open and honest debates.

Baroness Grey-Thompson recalled one complaint an aggrieved athlete made against their coach. “They complained their coach had asked them to fill out a training diary. That is not bullying; that is not the bar”.

But verbal abuse, harassment, fat-shaming, enforced dieting, being forced to train through injuries and public humiliation clearly is. “Practices more akin to torture,” as Dr Lang put it.

What about those situations that are more difficult to judge? For instance, the use of portion control dinner plates at mealtimes as part of a meticulously prepared training programme aimed at measuring calorie intake. Acceptable or unacceptable? I have heard both sides of the argument delivered passionately and convincingly. Context is key.

The quick answer is that coach and athlete should work together to ‘draw the line’ on such matters.

Surely though, on the questions of the price of success and drawing the line between acceptable and unacceptable, the simple truth is that one Olympic medal is not worth one traumatic childhood, or adult, experience.

Baroness Grey-Thompson said she was “shocked, horrified and appalled” at the Netflix documentary ‘Athlete A’, which shone a powerful light on abuses in sport and empowered a wave of athletes to come forward and speak bravely of their own experiences of bullying, fear and abuse.

She fully advocates having a discussion to understand where that line is. “And there is a line. It’s between enabling good performance and abuse.

Lots of people would do anything to compete for their country but I think it comes down to what that line in the sand is for each individual.

“Sport sells young athletes and their families the gold medal. Now, you absolutely need a bit of that, but there also has to be some reality along the way, and I don’t think we are doing enough of that.”

While there was general agreement from the 11 presenters who featured in the symposium that progress on athlete welfare had been made, and that the vast majority of coaches do have good intentions, backed up by good behaviours, there was concern that ethical issues still remain across performance sport and that it would be naïve to suggest otherwise.

“The system is not broken but it’s not balanced either,” said Baroness Grey-Thompson. “There are some really uncomfortable bits and it’s frayed around the edges, and I believe more support is needed to create a system and a culture that’s different.”

However, Dr Lang put things into harsh perspective by highlighting a research study that emphasised how much work there is still left to be done.

One of the only studies conducted into the magnitude of maltreatment of children in sport was undertaken by the University of Edinburgh/NSPCC Child Protection Research Centre in 2011, which asked university students across the UK to reflect on their experiences as children participating in organised sport.

More than six thousand students responded to the online survey, and 75% reported experiencing emotional harm, 24% physical harm, 29% sexual harassment and 79% bullying. 

The fact that we don’t have prevalence figures and that this study is now nearly ten years old, and the fact we don’t have figures for adult experiences of these forms of harm in sport, I think tells you something about how far we’ve got to go,” said Dr Lang.

“And I think what is really telling about these statistics is that maltreatment, and particularly the non-sexual forms, are so widespread in sport that it’s actually part and parcel of being an athlete. It isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. And that clearly needs to change.”

Cultural change is at the heart of what we can do to make things better, says Dr Lang.

“Stakeholders and organisations need to recognise that the structure and the culture of their sport is responsible for failings in athlete welfare. So, we are not just looking at these pathological explanations of these bad apples who have crossed some form of metaphorical line. Rather, it’s the actual culture of the sport that is contributing to, or tolerating, these behaviours.

Sports organisations need to be examining their own cultural conditions and, where these are found wanting, addressing the issues.”

According to Dr Bishop, the solutions to eliminating the embedded cultures of fear, mistrust and silence can be found by exploring how such dehumanising behaviours became normalised in the first place. 

Only by examining the root cause can organisations truly learn from their past mistakes. 

“It is not exclusively an organisational culture thing that needs to be ‘fixed’. Fixing is about controlling what can happen. But culture can’t be controlled in that way. It can’t be fixed; it has to be prioritised. 

“We’ve had a massive experiment and been successful in winning medals. But we need to examine what has worked and what hasn’t and understand why we have a culture that enables abuse. I don’t see enough stepping up to understand at a deeper level what is affecting the way we think, the way we behave, the way we then interact with one another. A deeper understanding will help us make different choices.”

During her career as a three-time Olympian, Dr Bishop says she doesn’t remember any discussion about where the line should be drawn.

Everything was acceptable and could be justified as toughness – that you need to toughen up – and I didn’t feel that I ever had a voice, to say, I think we’ve gone too far, maybe this isn’t in my best interests.”

Honest and open conversations on athlete welfare need to be happening repeatedly, she said, and it is up to everyone in the system – coaches, athletes, support staff, organisations, parents – to work out together, as part of a collaborative approach, what is inappropriate and what is a necessary part of becoming an elite athlete.

“We’ve got to change the conversations we are having on the riverbank, in the gym, and that’s a way of changing some of these cultures at a deeper level.

“And we have to agree this in partnership as we go. We must all draw the line together, and we need to review and redraw the line as we go.”

In a culture of fear, athletes are afraid to report a breach of duty of care because they are scared of the potential repercussions: they won’t be listened to or believed; they will be snubbed; deselected; lose their funding; and everything they have worked so hard to achieve will come crashing down around their ears.

They have the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, in other words, and by being stripped of their voice and their confidence to challenge a lopsided power dynamic, an additional culture of silence ensues and becomes embedded.

As Baroness Grey-Thompson explained, a large number of athletes in the talent pathway just keep their heads down as they don’t want to be perceived as someone who will rock the boat.

The ability to check and challenge has been suppressed… with funding having become a thing you can hold over the head of athletes.”

Which is why many athletes who speak out only do so when they are out of contract. 

Such a disempowering culture – where the balance of power is not spread amongst everyone in the ‘partnership’: athletes, coaches, parents – creates a potential breeding ground for unhealthy behaviours.

For any coach-athlete relationship to thrive, it must be a consenting journey, where decisions are made based on mutual understanding and agreement.

A “bottom up approach” to appreciating athletic insight and experiences can help to eradicate this power inequality, says Dr Bishop, who says many athlete ‘health check’ surveys are ineffective.

We only get that superficial level of information about what is going on [in the training environment]. We have to ask different questions and athletes have to feel safe in responding honestly to that deeper level of questioning, because that is the most valuable information we can get. Dig deeper. What aren’t athletes telling us.”

In her presentation on the advancements and omissions in safeguarding and promoting athlete welfare, Dr Lang emphasised the importance of engaging, educating and encouraging athletes to challenge and speak up so we can better understand and appreciate the athlete experience. 

Her recommendation: “Encouraging, collaborating and integrating the athlete voice, drawing on the expertise of researchers, academics and advocates working in this field and hearing the voice of those with lived experience of maltreatment.”

She said it was also crucial that organisations began subjecting their policy and procedures to robust and independent checks, and then monitor and review those policies and procedures on an ongoing basis.

Meanwhile, all three presenters in their summaries called for an independent Sports Ombudsman to be created to investigate toxic cultures and reports of abuse and to hold governing bodies to account for the duty of care they provide to athletes, coaches and support staff.

This was mentioned as a ‘priority recommendation’ in the Duty of Care in Sport Review, and has been earmarked as a high priority on numerous occasions over the last four decades by leading figures in sport – notably Minister for Sport Kate Hoey and her predecessor Lord Colin Moynihan in the 1980s and 1990s. Further evidence that changing a dominant culture is like turning an oil tanker, a slow and frustrating process.

It’s not enough that a great majority of sports are doing a terrific job of safeguarding and protecting athletes and prioritising personal welfare over performance. If even one sport fails in its duty to care, it is one too many.

The hope is that we can continue to keep duty of care at the top of the sporting agenda so that the remains of a toxic culture where athlete welfare is of secondary concern to the pursuit of medals is fully and finally eliminated. 

“There’s a massive appetite for change at the moment and to do things differently,” said Baroness Grey-Thompson, who is determined to seize the day while the pendulum is still swinging upwards. 

“Because we have heard it all before – and then it all drifts away again. And I don’t think that’s good enough. Unless we all step up and keep going, nothing is going to change.”

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