Sport teams must guard against abuse and harassment, IOC says

(Reuters Health) – Many sports organizations need to do a better job of protecting athletes against not just sexual harassment and physical abuse but also neglect and psychological taunts, the International Olympic Committee argues in a recent article.

Despite the well-recognized benefits of participating in sports, there are also negative influences on athlete health, wellbeing and integrity caused by harassment and abuse, the IOC noted in a consensus statement published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Elite competitors, children, disabled and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes are most at risk of being victims of abuse in sports, according to the IOC. Their unique circumstances can make them more vulnerable and more likely to feel less empowered to stop abuse, said lead statement author Dr. Margo Mountjoy, a family medicine specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.

“The problem lies not with the particular athlete group – athletes are not responsible for their abuse – but with the sport organization that does not have adequate athlete protection policies and procedures, or has a culture of ignorance or collusion,” Mountjoy added by email.

Whatever form the abuse takes, psychological torment often underlies the mistreatment, and sports organizations need to create a culture of openness that encourages reporting of any abuse and includes clearly understood penalties for misconduct, according to the IOC statement.

“Psychological abuse is believed to be the gateway to all other forms of abuse,” Mountjoy said.

Among other things, the IOC statement calls on sports organizations to create a whistleblower system for anonymous reporting of abuse and provide clear guidelines to all participants on how to make a compliant.

Athletes, coaches, doctors and parents should also be educated in how to spot abuse and taught how to promote a safe playing experience for all participants.

Sports organizations need to recognize that athletes can also be perpetrators of abuse and be vigilant about any real or perceived power imbalances that might create situations when mistreatment seems more difficult to combat.

For the IOC statement to help the most athletes, the message still needs to trickle down to youth leagues and recreational teams where many people compete, said Dr. Mitch Abrams, a sports psychologist at Learned Excellence for Athletes in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.

“For the millions of kids who don’t get anywhere near the IOC this needs to be a top-down approach,” said Abrams, who wasn’t involved in the consensus statement.

While it would be a mistake to assume every athlete is abused, it would also be a mistake to think bad behavior can’t happen on any given team, Abrams added.

“People assume sports are safe, but there is an ugly underbelly we need to be mindful of,” Abrams said. “Sports are a microcosm of our society, and until our society becomes more civil there is no reason to expect to see more civility in sports.”

SOURCE: British Journal of Sports Medicine, online April 26, 2016.

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