04: Safe Sport: What really matters to athletes and how do we make a lasting change?

by Allison Forsyth, Alpine Skiing, AthletesCAN Board Member

“Safe Sport”. Heard of it? Some say it’s a “buzz word”, while others think it means Safe Sport Canada, an already existing organization. Neither are true, and the more work that AthletesCAN and I do in this area, the clearer it becomes that the definition and meaning of “Safe Sport” varies widely in the sport community, and beyond. We seem to agree on the basic principle: Safe Sport is important. However, the discrepancies about its core components, how to achieve it and what meaningful change actually looks like are wide ranging.  

Safe sport should be the reason that we can proudly cheer for athletes at the Olympics, knowing we protected them on their journey. Safe sport should be the reason we, as parents, can confidently put our children in sport, knowing that they will be safe from maltreatment.

I am a 2-time Olympian, a World Championship medalist, a 5-time World Cup medalist, an 8-time Canadian Champion, and a survivor of sexual abuse in the Canadian Sport System. The results I will always remember fondly, and the abuse I dream daily of being able to forget. I was not protected even in the slightest from the predator that serially abused me and many of my teammates. Our system was not set up to properly educate athletes and administrators regarding the potential of abuse. Admittedly, sport was in a different place, society was in a different place… the culture of sport and the level of protection we have for our athletes has naturally evolved; however, it is still not nearly enough.

As an athlete speaking to other athletes, I recognize that what I have stated above will likely not surprise you. We grind day after day to achieve our goals, often blinded by the surrounding culture, taking for granted many parts of the “ugly” side of sport in the ruthless pursuit to be the best. When something “bad” happens to us and/or we witness something “bad” happening in our team, it is difficult to know what to do when what other sectors of society see as maltreatment, we often perceive as normal.

For example, take what is often argued to be “assertive coaching” and think about other sectors of society, most relevant being schools. In school, is it ok to bang on desks, yell daily and constantly at children telling them they are nothing, worthless, won’t go anywhere learning like “that”? Is it ok for a teacher to take a student alone on an overnight field trip? The answer is obvious, so why is it still ok for this to happen in sport?

With the relatively recent revelations of maltreatment in the NHL, in every hockey dressing room in the country, regardless of level, a moment of “oh, maybe the way my coach treated me when I was playing as a kid wasn’t ok?” occurred. Though moments of revelation similar to this have been happening in a much less public and media-heavy way for decades, this was it – the beginnings of a shift in understanding that there is an unhealthy culture in sport that easily progresses into a breeding ground for maltreatment, ranging from incidents of verbal abuse, neglect, physical abuse, and harassment, to ongoing and prolonged abuse with life destroying effects on athletes’ health and well- being, well beyond sport.

At the far extreme of the spectrum is sexual abuse  - the one glorified in the media, and the one that gets the most whispers on our teams. This is the kind of abuse that I was victim to, and the one that changed my life forever. As a survivor, I want you to know that yes, I was the victim of a serial predator and they are rare. However, and more importantly, had my sport been a leading example of a healthy, safe, positive, and educated culture, I think that this would not have happened to me.

On the one hand, we can hunt down and retroactively punish people who abuse their positions of power and abuse. There is no doubt that this will always be an important piece of the puzzle. However, we need to shift the culture to focus on prevention – ideally, to meet the 80/20 rule of 80% prevention, 20% punishment so we can truly change the devastating effects on athletes at the hands of abusers once the abuse has already taken place. We need to get upstream. Stopping the cycle does not happen at the end, it happens at the beginning.

We need to understand maltreatment, the definitions of the various forms of abuse and harassment, and how to educate, screen, train, and set a cultural expectation of positivity, health over podiums, and humans over results.

This is not about sport, this is about humanity.

So, what can we do as athletes to create a safe sport culture in our sport? It is not my intention to simplify the complexities of each individual sport, nor is it my intention to plant a seed of maltreatment that may not exist for a particular athlete or group of athletes. I sincerely hope it does not, but unfortunately, we know unequivocally based on the results of a survey that AthletesCAN developed in partnership with the University of Toronto, that is often not the case. It is my intention to encourage athletes to get into the driver’s seat of their sports, and to advocate for a healthy environment. Athletes: if it’s not for you, then for the future you, your future teammates, or perhaps your children.

I offer the following framework as a guide to empower yourself and advocate:

  1. Get involved and ask the questions that need to be asked. What policies does your team or organization have? What codes of conduct exist to protect you and your teammates? Who is your mandatory third party reporting mechanism? What do you see daily that you know is “wrong”? Who can you speak to about this? How are persons of authority screened? What training and education do they do? What is your travel policy? Do you have the rule of 2?
  2. Insist on education and training. Be proactive. There are many training and education options (most recently CAC Safe Sport training for National Team athletes). Push your organization to put this in place, and make it mandatory.
  3. SPEAK UP! If you know, you know. If you are only talking to your teammates about it, you are not talking to the right people. It is on all of us to protect ourselves and each other. Trust me when I say that you will not forgive yourself if you don’t say something.
  4. Ask for help. If you are not getting a response, if you are overwhelmed, or afraid of reprisal, don’t be afraid to ask for help. AthletesCAN is just one resource that can assist, and we are working hard to provide many, many more.

We are here. We get it. I am here. I get it. Together, let’s change sport forever.

 

BIO

Allison Forsyth, Alpine Skiing

Born and raised on Vancouver Island B.C., Allison began her competitive ski career at 5 years of age. Progressing quickly up the ranks and qualifying for the National Team at 17, she then competed exclusively on the World Cup Circuit of Alpine for 11 years. She is an 8 time Canadian Champion, has 5 World Cup podiums, and earned a bronze medal at the World Championships in 2003.

After retiring in 2008 after her second Olympics, and due to injury, Allison worked for lululemon in the field of brand and marketing for 10 years. Her passion for athletics and athlete advocacy has now launched her in to a career of training, coaching, and brand consulting in Toronto, Ont. Most recently Allison has come forward to speak up about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her National Team coach, and is committed to being instrumental in seeing change in the realm of athlete safety in sport so all athletes have a safe, healthy sport environment as they strive to achieve their goals.

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