Sexual harassment in sport takes on unique dimensions because of the power relationships established with coaches and because of the necessary focus on athletes’ bodies. Recognition of sexual harassment in sport has come at the highest levels. The International Olympic Committee issued a Consensus Statement in 2007 which reported that:
sexual harassment and abuse happen in all sports and at all levels. Prevalence appears to be higher in elite sport. Members of the athlete’s entourage who are in positions of power and authority appear to be the primary perpetrators. Peer athletes have also been identified as perpetrators. Males are more often reported as perpetrators than females…Research demonstrates that sexual harassment and abuse in sport seriously and negatively impact on athletes’ physical and psychological health. It can result in impaired performance and lead to athlete drop-out. Clinical data indicate that psychosomatic illnesses, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self harm and suicide are some of the serious health consequences.
The Windhoek Call for Action, adopted by the Second World Conference on Women and Sport in 1998, addresses the responsibility of all parties involved in sport to ensure “a safe and supportive environment for girls and women participating in sport at all levels by taking steps to eliminate all forms of harassment and abuse, violence and exploitation.” Recognizing the problem of sexual harassment in sports, the European Parliament in 2005 adopted a resolution that urges:
Member States and sports federations to adopt measures for the prevention and elimination of sexual harassment and abuse in sport by enforcing the legislation on sexual harassment at work, to inform athletes and their parents of the risks of abuse and the means of legal action available to them, to provide sports organisations’ staff with specific training and to ensure that criminal and disciplinary provisions are applied.
(See: European Resolution on Women and Sport, para. 40.)
The UNESCO Code of Sports Ethics states that sports organizations have the responsibility:
To ensure that safeguards are in place within the context of an overall framework of support and protection for children, young people and women, both to protect the above groups from sexual harassment and abuse and to prevent the exploitation of children, particularly those who demonstrate precocious ability.
Laws on sexual harassment should be extended to apply to sporting activities, if not already covered through general non-discrimination laws or through employment, education, or goods and services legislation.
Laws on sexual harassment in sport should draw on the general principles for sexual harassment legislation, while taking special account of: [Internal link to General principles above]
Because of the power dynamics between coaches and athletes, as well as the high stakes for many student and professional athletes whose sporting activities are integrated with many other aspects of their lives, such as work and education, sporting organizations should take the following steps to prevent and address sexual harassment:
(See: Women’s Sports Foundation, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Relationships Between Coaches, Other Athletic Personnel and Athletes: The Foundation Position; International Olympic Committee, Consensus Statement on Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sport; Women Sport International, Brochure on Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sport)
Example: Action-Oriented Research
An important step in addressing the problem of sexual harassment in sport is conducting high quality research to understand the scope and characteristics of the problem. Research findings are then used to develop appropriate policies, raise awareness about the problem, and design evidence-based services for victims.
Research of this type has taken place in several countries, primarily in Europe. In France for example, the Ministry of Sports established a working group on sexual harassment in sport, which then collaborated with the University of Bordeaux to conduct a national study on the issue. The Ministry of Sports drew on the findings in developing a code of ethics for sports facilities; implementing prevention and awareness programs in sports centres; creating trainings and for professionals working in sport centres including coaches and medical staff that included a DVD which highlighted situations that enhance the risk of sexual harassment; and setting up a hotline for victims of sexual harassment and abuse in sport. In Norway, survey and interview research conducted with elite female athletes and a high profile scandal revealed that sporting organizations had no coordinated approach to dealing with complaints of sexual harassment. The Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee has since issued Guidelines to Prevent Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sports. Similar research in the Czech Republic led to the creation of a handbook Preventing Sexual Harassment in sport in the Czech Republic. See: Prevention of sexual and gender harassment and abuse in sports: initiatives in Europe and beyond, Deutsche Sportjugend, 2012.
CASE STUDY – Targeted Protection for Children in the UK
In the UK, the Child Protection in Sport Unit of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded in 2001 to work with UK Sports Councils, governing bodies, and other organizations to help them reduce the risk of child abuse during sporting activities. CPSU established policies in relation to the governance and practice of sport with which all centrally funded sports bodies are required to comply as a condition of continued funding. This is part of a national strategy for safeguarding children and young people in sport (2006 – 2012). CPSU also developed a tool to asssit sporting organizations in evaluating whether they meet the protection requirements for their region. CPSU also have developed a checklist for organizations highlighting the policies and procedures they should have in place to effectively safeguard children participating in sporting activities. The group also maintains a website with sample policies and codes of conduct to protect children in sport. The organization maintains a hotline specifically for children to call and talk about any concerns they have about the way they are being treated during sporting activities. The group also produces a number of resources for coaches, sporting organizations, and parents that cover sexual harassment and abuse as well as many other safety topics. You can watch videos about best practices for dealing with complaints, responding to concerns about sexual abuse, coaches’ inappropriate behavior, and several other topics related to protection of children in sports. The CPSU’s model for addressing protection of young people in sports has been identified as a best practice because it uses mandatory, evidence-based guidelines, provides extensive support to sporting organizations in meeting their obligations, and produces high quality resources for everyone involved in the process from children, to coaches, to administrators, to parents. See: Prevention of sexual and gender harassment and abuse in sports: initiatives in Europe and beyond, Deutsche Sportjugend, 2012.