Athletes share accounts of maltreatment in elite sport


Photo: Colourbox


By Stine Alvad
One in five Canadian athletes surveyed in a new report have experienced maltreatment including emotional, physical and sexual abuse, harassment and neglect. In another case, testimonies from dozens of Danish swimmers about a psychologically abusive coaching environment paint a similar picture.

A newly released report from Canadian athlete organisation AthletesCAN, has surveyed 1001 current and former Canadian athletes from national teams about maltreatment in sport.

Of the current athletes, 17 percent indicate that they have experienced psychologically harmful behavior while doing their sport. For retired athletes, the number is 21 percent. Other results include 15 percent of the current athletes surveyed report having “disordered eating behaviours’ and 13 percent indicate that they have suicidal thoughts.

The report also finds that there are “significant and positive relationships between all forms of harm (psychological, physical, sexual and neglect) and the negative health outcomes of engaging in self-harming behaviours, disordered eating behaviours/eating disorders, and having suicidal thoughts”.

Only 15 percent of the athletes surveyed who indicated that they had experienced abuse or bullying, reported it, the survey shows.

Basis for positive changes
While the results of the survey are serious, Allison Forsyth, Olympian and AthletesCAN board member, believes that the results can be used for a positive change going forward.

“While some could view the outcomes of this study as negative, highlighting the extreme nature of the issues and having a baseline to then work from to effect change is actually positive,” Forsyth says. “Athletes rarely report. Plain and simple. They are not comfortable or feel safe doing so with anyone who has a vested interest in the outcome.”

The report presents a series of recommendations for the Canadian sports movement if it wishes to create a safer environment for athletes.

The recommendations include setting up an independent body to receive and investigate allegations and reports about harmful behavior, mandatory education for all stakeholders, climate surveys on a regular basis and strengthening accountability measures and resources available for victims.

The study’s findings were presented at a ‘National Safe Sport Summit’ taking place on 8-9 May, where representatives from more than 100 stakeholders met to address abuse, harassment and discrimination in sport.

A code of conduct addressing abuse
During the summit, Canadian minister of Science and Sport, Kirsty Duncan, presented the progress of a ‘model code of conduct for sport in Canada to end abuse, discrimination and harassment in sport’.

This code is part of a line of measures by the ministry to ensure sport as a safe landscape to be in and includes: a declaration seeking to secure collaboration at all levels of Canadian sport towards eliminating harmful behaviour, the withholding of public funding from federations failing to live up to safe sport measures, a help-line for victims, a federal gender equity secretariat, and a third-party Investigation Unit serving national federations in resolving sport disputes.

"We are well on our way toward our goal of developing a harmonized code of conduct for our country's sport system that will keep athletes and children in sport safe,” said Duncan.

Investigation to assess the Danish elite swimming culture
Through a documentary and a series of articles published by the national broadcaster, DR, more than 30 Danish elite swimmers, both former and current, have shared their experiences with being on the Danish national team in swimming in the years 2003-2013. Their stories describe an abusive and rough culture where public humiliation and public weightings were the norm. The experiences made by the swimmers have in some cases resulted in psychological diseases such as eating disorders, depression and more.

According to the Danish Swimming Union, public weightings were banned in 2005, but the swimmers say the weightings continued.

After a meeting with the Danish minister of culture, the Danish NOC, DIF, and the Danish organisation for elite sport, Team Denmark, have now announced that they will start an independent investigation into the athletes’ reports.

“We take these cases very seriously and we want to disclose exactly what happened out of concern for the involved. Nobody should get sick – neither physically or mentally – from doing elite sport. That is why it is important to get to the bottom of in this so that we can at least learn from the past,” says Niels Nygaard, president of the Danish NOC in a press release.

‘Not in line with Danish sport model’
The Danish Minister of Culture and sport, Mette Bock, is also disturbed by the recent revelations in swimming, in part because it does not correlate with the image of Danish sport as an environment that sees athletes as humans first.   

“When I travel around the world speaking about the Danish sports model, I always emphasise that we have a holistic view of the human being competing, and that we do not only care about medals. That there is a good life while you are in the sport but also after,” Bock says to the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.

The investigation will be initiated shortly and is expected to be ready after summer.

Play the Game raises the voice of athletes
Athlete power and welfare are among the subjects when Play the Game opens its doors for its 11th international conference in Colorado Springs, CO, this October. A strong line-up of athletes, sports officials, researchers and other stakeholders will debate how athlete well-being as well as representation can be strengthened. Abstract submission and registration is open and you can find more information here:

Further reading:

The survey of athletes is conducted by researchers at Toronto University in cooperation with AthletesCAN. Read more and download the report

More about the Canadian initiatives in the area of safe sport


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