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  • Claire McFarlane ( 6 mins read )

Why sport is the perfect hunting ground for sexual abuse, and what you can do to keep safe

Sport has given me so much. It all started back in 1994, when a very un-athletic me was selected to be part of a team to row at the Australian National Championships. To this day, I have no idea how I was selected...obviously the coaches saw something that I didn't. My parents agreed to let me take on this mega sport challenge - for which I'm so grateful. I can't imagine what my life would be like if I hadn't rowed to such an elite level.

My teenage life changed quite radically. We trained 14 times a week...that's literally twice a day...on water and off water. We had full weekends away where we rowed and rowed and rowed. There was a lot of pain, very early mornings (training was before and after school), highs and some big lows...did I mention the pain? The blisters and our coaches method of handling the blisters will remain etched in my mind and calluses forever.

We reached perfection. It's not always about winning, but it does feel good seeing all the other crews far behind, our boat gliding through the water, rowing together in the zone and hearing the sound of the bubbles run down the hull. It was magic!

The competition is fierce in Australia, and we didn't take home a medal at the championships but we did go on to win all our rowing season regattas and the famous Head of the River in Brisbane.

Claire McFarlane in a row boat at the bow

I credit a lot of my everyday strength and survival skills to this sporting experience.

Rowing taught me resilience, determination, team work, not giving up in the face of adversity, going for my dreams and a trust in my body that I had never known before.

There was also a dark side.

Many would argue that intense training schedules, no rest, rowing on severe blisters and vomiting regularly after a session on the ergo (rowing machine) might be seen as borderline abuse. The line is do you reach an elite level if you don't push way past the comfort zone? Overall, I think our coaches moderated this well and they didn't stop us from having fun.

The fun part is the part that concerns me the most. The hidden abuse...the abuse that’s more sexual in nature. The willingness to supply us with alcohol to celebrate victories. We were over 16, so some of the interactions between rowers and coach would be seen as consensual. I never liked it when I saw it happening. It left me feeling ‘creeped out’ and thinking that it wasn't right for a coach to interact in this way. A coach is someone we trust completely, a mentor, a guide...they hold a position of power and often you hear the phrase ‘coach knows best’. I wanted to voice my concerns, but I knew the adults wouldn't listen to me. I thought they’d tell me I was overreacting. They saw it happening, they were also present at these victory celebrations but there was always an excuse to justify the coach’s actions and the rower’s ‘flirtiness’.

I will never know exactly what happened to some of my fellow teammates. My only hope is they had the possibility to consent freely (hard to do under the influence of alcohol) and if not, they don't blame themselves or see it as a negative experience in their lives.

As for me, my rowing career came to quite an abrupt stop after contracting glandular fever...a very common ailment among rowers. It was my last year of high school, and the virus knocked me hard. It drained all my energy and for 4 months things were very difficult. Glandular fever can have an impact on mental well being and also knowing my rowing days where numbered, made for some really hard times to get through.

Miraculously, I made it through my last year of high-school scoring good grades. I had lost many study hours to training fatigue and glandular fever. Bless my biology teach who would let me and another crew mate take naps at the back of the class...biology was one of my strongest subjects, so I don't think she was too worried.

Instead of signing up for rowing at university, I decide to become a coach.

I learnt so much about the sport being on the other side of the rowing boat. I coached school girls rowing. It was volunteer based with lots of hours spent coaching, planning and helping out at regattas every Saturday during the season. I developed a deep appreciation for coaches. They commit a lot of their time and energy to their athletes. It was an amazing experience. Coaching showed me that I had a responsibility and duty of care for my young rowers. I could feel the trust that was handed over, by the girls and their parents. These girls looked up to me for guidance, not just for rowing but as a role model in their young lives.

No one ever talked about this responsibility. It was just assumed that we would know how to handle it. I don’t recall receiving specific training on safeguarding or misconduct. And we never covered the topic of sexual abuse or harassment.

The lack of training didn’t cross my mind back then.

Now as I move from country to country, hearing stories of sexual abuse, many at the hands of coaches or fellow athletes, I'm seeing how unsafe sport can be.

As an athlete, you trust your coach has your best interests at heart and will keep you safe. You know they are going to make you suffer in order to improve, but you trust they won’t hurt you or cause you injury.

As a coach, I experienced feeling that trust. When I reflect on it now, I can totally see the power imbalance between coach and athlete, and how it can be used for good or bad. This kind of power dynamic is the perfect hunting ground for an abuser.

As for fellow team mates, they become like family members. There’s vulnerability and fear when we have to train hard and push past pain limits. Having your team mates there makes it easier to get through. They see you at your worst and your most glorious. I feel lucky because I only trained with girls around my own age. I’m unsure how easy or safe it might have been if boys also shared our training, especially on weekends away. It sucks to think that bringing boys into the mix could increase the risk for girls but, back then, and even today, it’s a reality. Education on sexual health and respect is severely lacking, and real-life cases are showing us that adults in the sporting arena condone bad behaviour from boys and blame girls.

So can we reduce the risk of sexual abuse in sport?

Yes, I believe we can. When I look at my own experience in rowing, I see possibilities for athletes, coaches and adults to be part of making sport a safer place.

Imagine if it looked like this instead:

1. Before any rowing begins, the adults in charge of managing the club formulate safety guidelines, protocols and steps for identify and managing misconduct or abuse. This can be done with the help of an outside expert. There are different laws when it comes to age, so it’s important that this process covers guidelines for children, teenagers within the age of consent and adults.

2. Athletes, coaches and parents (when relevant) are required to attend training to inform them of these safety guidelines, protocols and procedures for reporting misconduct or abuse. Athletes receive specific training to understand their rights and help to recognise when abuse is taking place. Coaches receive specific training with regards to their role, duty of care and help to understand the power dynamic between an athlete and coach.

3. Normalise these guidelines and procedures so they are not seen as different, but instead become everyday habits like other safety risk prevention. If a problem does arise, ensure the response is handled in a way that reflects the guidelines and corresponds with the training that was given to athletes and coaches.

4. Provide regular updated training and encourage a sport culture that is free of abuse. Create a space to reflect and include regular reviews of the guidelines, protocols and procedures.

5. Have fun. Celebrate the wins and recognise the positive culture of having a safe space for everyone.

This is what we call SAFEGUARDING. And it’s how we can reduce the risk of sexual abuse in sport.

I didn’t invent this concept and many sporting bodies around the world have adopted safeguarding practices, or are at least looking at the risks of sexual abuse. In some countries, governments mandate safeguarding in sport. It’s only a handful of countries at the moment, but their experience could guide the way for others.

Unfortunately, there’s still widespread denial that sexual violence is problem in sport. There’s also a ton of resistance towards incorporating safeguarding practices into sports. Some of the big sporting organisations don’t even want to have the discussion. I’ve met a few of these organisations and it breaks my heart to see their head in the sand attitude. Safeguarding is so easy to implement, there is good support out there to do it properly and the results are so positive. I can’t understand why they refuse to do it.

This is where you and I become really important. If we start asking the sport bodies we work with, train with or send out children to, what are their safeguarding protocols, it becomes an issue they have to address. We need to break the silence on sexual abuse in sport and acknowledge that it’s far more widespread that the stories we read about in the newspaper.

One of the big myths around safeguarding it that it’s seen as a witch hunt. All I can say to that is, every athlete has the right to be safe from harm and abuse. Safeguarding helps to do this. Yes, it will expose abusers but wouldn’t you want to know your sport organisation wants to keep you safe, rather than protect abusers?


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