Following the BAC’s work in supporting those affected by mistreatment and abuse within gymnastics, the organisation’s Head of Safeguarding, Elaine Francis, was invited to speak at the latest meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG)on Sport, Modern Slavery and Human Rights on 21 June.
The meeting, entitled ‘Protecting Athletes from Abuse and the Right to Remedy’, was held with the aims of raising awareness on the issue of athlete abuse, as well as sharing challenges in the current system, and best practice on how to address them.
Elaine has played an integral part in the BAC’s work on gymnastics, and also leads the organisation’s liaisons with National Governing Bodies and athletes to ensure that safeguarding processes are understood and being correctly implemented.
To the APPG, she explained:
Duty of care refers to the obligations placed on people to act towards others in a certain way, in accordance with certain standards. There should be no doubt that in sport we all hold a universal duty of care towards athletes of any age, and throughout every stage of their career.
Unfortunately, I have seen first-hand a vast disparity between the safeguarding standards to which sport settings are held accountable, in comparison to those of a school or local authority. For example, the professional registration required for teachers and social workers to practice: a public record of conduct concerns and action taken, Ofsted visits and mandatory professional development and reporting.
Our duty of care in sport supersedes that of ‘child protection’ practice and spans greatly into the safeguarding of adults. Research repeatedly tells us the further up the pathway an athlete is, there are increased vulnerabilities and a higher prevalence of abuse. In sport we must all ask ourselves what are the long-term effects of my actions on the athlete both inside sport and long after they have left.
After moving from frontline child protection practice, my immediate observations of some sporting environments was that of overwhelming insularity, paired with a reluctance to report concerns outside of the organisation.
The battle however is not one sided as I learnt during my first experience of taking a sport referral to the LADO (Local Authority Designated Officer), when I was met with the response that the concern being raised was ‘just the culture in sport’. For me, this demonstrates the critical need not only for safeguarding practice in sport to be elevated, but for knowledge and understanding of the complexities of sport to be imparted onto external agencies.
On Thursday 16 June, the BAC welcomed the publication of the Whyte Review – of which we are incredibly proud of our work towards.
In July 2020, following the release of Athlete A, it became apparent that the issue of abuse in gymnastics was far from confined to the United States, as hundreds of British gymnasts and their families courageously stepped forward to share their experiences. As early as August 2020, the BAC became inundated with disclosures of abuse and mistreatment. At that point we identified that there was no single safe place for gymnasts have their voices heard and receive support.
While the BAC’s primary responsibility is to provide independent and confidential support to World Class Programme (WCP) athletes, it is also crucial that we do everything within our power to ensure that the experiences that were being relayed to our team should never be repeated, in any sporting environment.
After seeking the financial support of Sport England and UK Sport, the BAC initiated a bespoke response to those who had been impacted. This involved a partnership helpline with the NSPCC, and the secondment of a team of individuals from specialist safeguarding backgrounds outside of sport, who to date have provided support to over 280 individuals.
Our rapid response to the concerns we were hearing, and subsequent support package which we put in place, was world-leading, and involved the provision of online FACT therapy sessions and one-to-one clinical assessment.
We supported individuals to respond to the Review’s call for evidence, attend interviews and submit independent complaints, and provided emotional support and safeguarding advice.
The work of the BAC has evidenced how a collaboration of multiple organisations and diverse professional backgrounds can fill the glaring gap that existed within safeguarding practices in sport. Now that this blueprint exists, it is crucial that sport continues this upward curve towards achieving safeguarding best practice.
Key observations from my experience, and urgent cultural points to remedy, are:
A debate that has not, in my opinion, reached a conclusion in elite sport is what practices, and how much, can be ‘tolerated’ in the name of pursuing success?
It is my view that athlete welfare should be held with absolutely paramountcy, as without the athletes, sport is nothing more than equipment. To achieve this there needs to be a shift in how this topic is viewed. The word safeguarding can no longer be heard as a taboo.
The best practice in sport should be prevention – I believe this can be achieved by bringing standards in line with other sectors. With:
EDUCATION AND TRAINING
That is regular, meaningful, and interactive, and with an increased emphasis on athlete voice.
With the introduction of a centralised coaching database and the end of sports marking their own homework. I strongly reiterate the recommendation from the Duty of Care Report and Whyte Review for the introduction of a sports ombudsman.
The Whyte Review highlighted athletes feeling unable to report concerns within their own governing body due to a culture of fear. Therefore, at its core, British athletes within the high-performance system need an independent, safe place to go to for advice, support, and representation.
Equipping an organisation like the BAC with increased capability to proactively support WCP athletes, together with a compulsory mandate for sports to engage with us, is critical in helping to safeguard athletes in the system.
There has never been a more important time for athletes to have a trusted and respected organisation with which they can rely on that sees them as a human being first, exceptional athlete second.
The BAC is also committed to growing its reputation as an established leader of the athlete voice, and will continue to proactively represent athletes in order to influence relevant stakeholders in providing a better culture for British athletes to thrive, not just survive, in.