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Abuse in sport a poll issue in Germany

While medals are considered the ultimate metrics of sporting success in Olympic seasons around the world, Germany spent a large part of 2020-21 confronting the underbelly of some of its highly successful mass and elite training systems, holding a mirror to them.

Pitching for an independent centre for Safe Sport to protect young athletes, vulnerable to sexual and other forms of abuse – the lead-up to Sunday’s federal election has seen rare cross-party consensus on the issue of safeguarding young athletes.

Cases of violence and abuse in German elite sport (gymnastics, swimming, boxing) were revealed last October, with gymnastics confronting entrenched abuse at one of its National Training Centres. National politics got involved as the federal government is responsible for funding elite sport and these centres. As the country elects a new Chancellor and members of the 20th Bundestag on Sunday, election manifestos committed funding and support to the issue of tackling child abuse in sport.

While leading parties CDU/CSU affirmed their commitment to setting up a Safe Sports centre if elected, SDP too promised an independent point of contact. Alliance 90/The Greens went deeper, with their election programme saying, “We advocate for a national strategy against psychological, physical and sexual violence in sport, of which the establishment of an independent centre for safe sport is an integral part.” They also demanded a study financed by the federal government to research the extent of sexualised violence in mass sports in past cases (called “Aufarbeitung”).

The FDP has spoken of counsellors at every federal state centre, while the Left too stressed on “better processing of past and present cases of sexualised violence. We want to seriously examine the proposals for the creation of an independent centre for safe sport.”

Call for autonomous oversight

Maximilian Klein, Representative for International Sport Policy at Athleten Deutschland (AD), an athletes’ rights group, led with a discussion paper that called for an independent oversight organisation, separate from sports federations. “Since then (the paper), the debate gained very good momentum, a broad alliance of stakeholders and parties is supporting the idea; and it was written down in some election programmes of our major parties,” he said of a movement that ran parallel to the pursuit of Olympic medals – Germany finished ninth with 37 medals at Tokyo.

The Independent Inquiry into Sexual Child Abuse in Germany started looking into cases of abuse since 2019, gathering testimonies of past cases and looking into reasons why there were cover-ups.

Thirty-seven per cent of team athletes surveyed had experienced sexual violence. “Apart from supposedly mild forms of violence, such as verbal sexualized remarks, 12 per cent of the athletes – 7 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women – have experienced severe forms of sexual violence in the context of sports, e.g., child sexual abuse, rape, unwanted sexual contact, or repeated sexual harassment,” AD’s discussion paper stated adding that it had criminal ramifications.

The call for establishing contact points for young athletes, independent of their sport clubs and families to report abuse, gained decibel after about 100 victims came forward with their stories to the Commission.

“After a public hearing by the German truth and reconciliation commission dealing with child abuse in sport, we were looking for ways of structural reforms, had a look at the debate abroad (such as in the US or Switzerland) and wrote a discussion paper calling for an Independent Centre for Safe Sport in Germany,” Klein recalls.

While the commission findings were followed by a belated apology from members of the Olympic committee, resistance to an independent authority to monitor cases slowly saw political parties putting their foot down and taking a stand.

Unequal relationships

Klein explained the need for an independent body was acutely felt because, “of very asymmetrical power relationships between athletes and coaches, as well as conflicts of interest of acting persons.”

Several testimonies had spoken of athletes’ hesitancy to contact their own federation or assigned ombudsman offices, fearing they wouldn’t be heard, believed or protected from staying anonymous, having to alone bear the consequences for reporting abuse.

The United States had set up the US Center for Safe Sport through the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017, and between March 2017 and February 2020 reported a staggering 5,000 cases of violence and abuse in sport, according to the AD paper.

Klein says that cases of abuse in gymnastics spilled over like a wave into many other countries after the Nassar revelations in US gymnastics, and athletes finally dared to tell their own stories, starting a worldwide debate including at the German Olympic Training Centre. “Here, too, the structural deficits of a closed eco-system without any control, and athletes in strong dependency relationships, became apparent – although many knew about it for a long time,” he said.

“The national federation, for example, still faces legal difficulties in dismissing the coach. Unfortunately, it took these horrific revelations around the world to bring awareness to the minds of officials. The pressure became far too great than to look the other way any longer,” Klein said, talking of why governments had to mandate measures.

“The culture of elite sport must be aligned in such a way that medals do not come at the expense of the health, wellbeing, and human rights of athletes, including minors. A speak-up culture must become the norm,” he added.

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