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It takes a sporting village to raise a child

On the 11th of May the Prime Minister’s office released details of a new national strategy to prevent child sexual abuse. The whole-of-nation framework will be rolled out over 10 years and is seeking to establish a coordinated and consistent approach to prevent and better respond to child sexual abuse in Australia. During the first four years, Sport Integrity Australia will receive $4.7 million to enhance child safeguarding in sport. This allocation of funding may not come as a complete surprise as on the 3rd of May, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released its quite earthshattering independent review into Gymnastics in Australia, identifying systemic issues that affect the athlete’s experience and as a result their wellbeing. The review found that the ‘culture’ of the sport had opened the door towards misconduct, abuse, bullying and harassment. To the credit of the Gymnastics Australia Board, they engaged the AHRC to conduct the independent review in August 2020, sparked by the release of the ‘Athlete A’ Netflix documentary that revealed decades long abuse and cover up in US Gymnastics. In the Netherlands, on the 28th of April, the Royal Dutch Gymnastics Federation (KNGB) released their own independent investigation report (Ongelijke Leggers – Uneven Bars) into Gymnastics in the Netherlands. This report also paints the picture of an abusive and damaging high performance environment as a pattern of cultural acceptance (in the sport) that is almost a mirror image of what is reported in the US and Australian investigations.

Although gymnastics as a sport has received a disproportional amount of negative attention in regard to presenting unsafe sporting environments for young people, it is important to acknowledge that our collective obsession with winning translates to most if not all sporting fields across the nation. In Australian media a few days ago, it was reported that junior footy coaches had to be suspended because of abusive behaviour towards umpires, and that players as young as nine would join in the chorus of abuse. Tennis has long been known for having overly zealous parents sitting courtside, living vicariously through their kids, and abusing them and their opponents in the process. One only has to read Jelena Dokic’ bestselling autobiography ‘Unbreakable’ to see how obsessive parental pressure can lead to the destruction of youthful innocence and talent.

The fact that three National Gymnastics Federations (USA, Australia, Netherlands) independently from each other have reported similar patterns of systematic abuse in their sport, and noted that the sport’s culture had allowed for this to continue, shows that these are not isolated cases. It is not the sport governing body, but rather the larger sport ecosystem (perpetuating a culture of condoning) that presents the problem. Elite sport and the business that underpins it has become a cut throat industry that mirrors the winning at all cost attitude of many for profit corporations. Unfortunately, young people are at the heart of elite sport, and in gymnastics in particular, peak performance is achieved when athletes are still young children. Probably more than in any other sport, these children cannot make important life decisions on their own, and are not in a position to make balanced decisions on what they want, what is good for them, and what is acceptable behaviour towards them… and what is not!

How can Sport Integrity Australia best spend the $4.7 million received from the federal government in safeguarding Australian sport? Hockey Australia might be serving as one example of a sport that has taken a proactive approach to the sport’s integrity. In their 2020 National Integrity Framework they aim to express and nurture a ‘culture’ in hockey, that is founded on values and principles. These in turn drive the jurisdiction and scope of the framework, applying to all (State) Associations and Clubs. Most importantly, it drives the recruitment and training of staff, and the development and implementation of training materials and standard operating protocols. There is also a direct line to the Hockey Australia Integrity Unit for reporting ‘prohibited conduct’.

It might be argued that Integrity Units such as in Hockey Australia have been in existence in different formats across various sports. However, never before has it been clearer that high performance cultures in elite sport can become toxic and destructive. It is the sport’s governing bodies’ prime responsibility to be custodians of the sport and ensure safe environments to play and compete in. By the time talented athletes reach the elite level, it is too late to rectify mishaps. As gymnastics has shown, by then, athletes have become part of a culture that they will find difficult to escape.

Community sport is where most of our kids can find a playground to practice and enjoy their physical, mental and social development. Community sport can also provide the development space for talented athletes to hone their skills, experience and build their resilience. Last but not least, it is also where young children can learn how to be part of diverse groups of people, of teams, of something that is bigger than themselves. We all play our part in creating, sustaining and nurturing those sporting communities. It takes a sporting village to raise a child.

On the 27th of May the Sport Australia Hall of Fame (SAHOF) and Victoria University will organise the 6th National Sport Integrity Forum “It takes a sporting village to raise a child”. The live stream of this event can be accessed by registering at https://vuevents.eventsair.com/national-sport-integrity-forum-2021