14th October 2019

PTG2019 – Day 1: Empower athletes to end abuse in sport

Athletes need empowering to end abuse in sport, was the main message from the opening day of Play The Game 2019 in Colorado Springs. Whilst legislation allowing athletes to take legal action against abusers is an important part of this, delegates also heard that sport should welcome moves for athletes to organise themselves as they see fit.

“Even if legal action can produce results, it cannot be expected to solve every problem in sport”, said Play The Game founder Jens Sejer Andersen in his opening address. “There is more than one athlete voice. The Olympic family should welcome athletes to organise exactly as they find best”. Play The Game will receive a €250,000 grant from European Universities and three athlete organisations to strengthen athlete power in sport.

Delegates heard from athletes who have been empowered to end abuse, such as Yuliya Stepanova and Vitaly Stepanov, who took great personal risk to expose Russia’s manipulation of the doping control process. They outlined that the Russian State directed such manipulation, something the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has notoriously failed to do.

“Officials were selecting up to five athletes in each running event that were untouchable, and could dope through the preparation process [training] and during the National Championships”, said Stepanova. “The Russian Minister of Sports made sure that Russian anti-doping agents allowed doping for the chosen ones”.

Detail from Richard McLaren’s IP Report…

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin promoted Vitaly Mutko from Minister of Sports to Deputy Prime Minister in October 2016, after WADA published its first Independent Person (IP) Report into the Russian doping scandal. This perhaps explains why Russia has consistently refused to acknowledge the State’s role in manipulation of the doping control process, despite large amounts of evidence that it was involved – not least, the apparent manipulation of the Moscow Laboratory Information Management (LIMS) system.

“Why do we spend so much time punishing athletes, when we don’t do the same thing with officials?” asked David Howman, Chair of the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), perhaps summing up the situation regarding Russia. Howman also revealed that the AIU is investigating the role of IAAF officials in surgery performed on four young athletes ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, under its rules regarding gender. 

This subject came up in a later session, examining Caster Semenya’s challenge to the IAAF’s Differences of Sex Development (DSD) Regulations and what it means to athletes. Delegates heard how the science behind the DSD Regulations was found to be flawed, and how the IAAF manipulated the case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), enabling the arbitration body to dismiss Semenya’s challenge to the Regulations.

Detail from Dr. Bermon’s Opinion…

It is understood that despite assertions to the contrary from an IAAF lawyer, representatives from the governing body were invited to speak at the session. As previously reported, the IAAF used performance data from three of the four young athletes to prop up the DSD Regulations. It didn’t perform the surgery, but produced a Study documenting its results. Two of the four athletes told reporters how they were informed that surgery would allow them to continue competing. A later Opinion from Dr. Stéphane Bermon of the IAAF’s Health and Science Department documents the decrease in performance of three of the four athletes, post surgery. This Opinion was used in support of the DSD Regulations.

The scale of the problem regarding sexual abuse of athletes was thrown into sharp relief by SafeSport, a US organisation set up in 2017 to protect young people from sexual abuse. Ju’Riese Colon, CEO of SafeSport, outlined that the body is receiving 239 reports per month, and around 700 reports a quarter. This translates into 3,000 reports per year. The body has 1,200 open investigations, and has closed 2,000 cases. 

However, this just involves the US. The global scale of the problem is therefore likely to be huge, and hidden. Delegates heard that on average, it takes 22 years between a sexual abuse case happening and a survivor coming forward. The average age of a reporter of abuse is 52. This is therefore a problem that will not go away and is likely to grow.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, CEO of Champion Women, outlined that protection is often the focus in tackling sexual abuse. She argued that athletes need empowering in order to speak up through legislation, ombudsmen, regulation and more. “Larry Nassar is not unique”, she said. “My 1984 coach is on the banned list for abusing my 16 year old teammate at the time – Mitch Ivey”.

Scott Blackmun’s severance package from the US Olympic Committee (USOC), which dismissed him as CEO, was US$2.4 million. Hogshead-Makar pointed out that this is more money than the USOC has given to SafeSport.

Sports reaction to such issues is “crisis based, and a band-aid solution for everything”, explained Rob Koehler of Global Athlete, who has experience as WADA’s ex-Deputy Director General. “The structure within the Olympic Movement – the Athlete Commissions – is enabling a power imbalance”. He outlined that WADA wrote letters to Athlete Commissions ahead of its 2018 Athlete Forum in an apparent attempt to undermine its outcomes.

On a panel discussing the growing power of player unions, Koehler pointed out that the US approach of Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) between sporting organisations and players could actually grow European sport, by ensuring that athletes have a vested financial interest in ensuring that sport is clean and commercially successful. 

At present, the Athlete Commissions operated by sports governing bodies do not provide an equivalent motivation, argued Brendan Schwab of the World Players Association (WPA). “The IOC Athletes Commission was set up in 1980”, he said. “It hasn’t asked for athletes to be paid yet!”

• Photograph in header is courtesy of Thomas Søndegaard, PlayTheGame. For originals, click here. For updates on today’s sessions at PlayTheGame, follow #PTG2019 or @sport_integrity on Twitter…

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