Harassment in competitive sport demands greater attention

If we can’t protect our young and talented (many of those abused have gone on to win at the Olympics), what price medals?

Two years ago, the biggest monster of them all, Larry Nassar, doctor of the US gymnastics team, was sentenced to 175 years in prison after over 150 sportswomen came forward to offer testimony at his hearing for sexual abuse.   -  AP

“I mistreated and humiliated young gymnasts to win medals.”

That is a rare confession. It came recently from the Dutch coach Gerrit Beltman, Belgium’s national coach from 2002 to 2008 and later head coach of the Dutch junior team. Last year he joined Singapore Gymnastics to coach their women’s artistic team.

“I sincerely apologise for what I did,” Beltman is quoted as saying, “I was convinced that I was doing the right thing and I only now realise that I have caused trauma. I am really ashamed of that.” Not many gymnasts he trained, however, are willing to take his apology at face value.

Physical violence as a coaching technique seems a tradition in Japan, whose coaches sometimes see it as a way of building character. According to a recent report from Human Rights Watch, young sportspersons were routinely punched, kicked, beaten with sticks, deprived of water, choked, sexually harassed.

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Two years ago, the biggest monster of them all, Larry Nassar, doctor of the US gymnastics team, was sentenced to 175 years in prison after over 150 sportswomen came forward to offer testimony at his hearing for sexual abuse.

How do coaches get away with long-term abuse? One, the athletes themselves are terrified of rocking the boat or missing out on opportunities. Many don’t recognise abuse for what it is, believing it is ‘normal’ and part of the training. Governing bodies are terrified of losing sponsorship money if there is a taint on their sport. And having got away with it over a period, the coaches themselves feel they can’t be touched. It is a combination of circumstances that show up sports in the worst light possible. If we can’t protect our young and talented (many of those abused have gone on to win at the Olympics), what price medals?

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The recent Netflix documentary Athlete A, about the Nassar affair, is an eye-opener. But abuse is not limited to one country.

Recently stories have emerged of a British gymnast locked up in a cupboard, a triathlete who committed suicide in South Korea following abuse by the coaching staff. Australian gymnast Chloe Gilliland, a gold medallist at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, revealed she had felt depressed and anxious at her “peak”, and left the sport for her own wellbeing when she was 17.

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And what of? According to a report in The Indian Express, 45 cases of abuse were reported in the decade 2010-19, which tells us one thing: cases are grossly under-reported. Hardly any coaches are punished, a rap on the knuckles is all they get for anything ranging from sexual harassment to physical abuse. An annual increment is denied, or a transfer is affected, meaning the abuse continues at another centre. Cases of harassment have been reported at SAI training centres in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Aurangabad, Daman and Diu, Patiala, Eluru, Kashipur, Cuttack, Kozhikode, Bhopal and Mayiladuthurai.

Harassment — sexual, emotional, physical — is an area of competitive sport that demands greater attention. From all of us.