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Over the past few weeks, the rise of Safe Sport stories has been startling. Or is it? Athletes are finding their voices and coming together collectively to share what has been swept under the rug for too long.

We don’t treat athletes well in sport. We treat them as commodities. We extract from them the performances that we seek, we exclude anyone that doesn’t fit our mold, we ask more and more of them, and do not offer them adequate support, care or attention. Once we are done with them, we cast them aside. Their usefulness is complete, and we move on to the next one.

We can not expect athletes to show up for our country when we refuse to show up for them.

Sport has stripped the humanity out of the athlete’s experience. We don’t take care of our athletes, we use our athletes.

We exist in a sports system that has been doing this for a long time, but in the race to own the podium, we have asked more and more and given less and less back to these people – these athletes – around which an entire system exists. We count medals instead of relationships. We have a transactional relationship with our athletes – and when they ask for something better, something more meaningful, we have labeled them troublemakers or high-maintenance.

We have not stopped to consider the cost that this type of relationship would have. We have built an entire ecosystem on silencing the very voices that ought to be at the heart of every decision. We have harmed athletes repeatedly, through a range of types of maltreatment, and we have ignored them when they tried to tell us something was wrong.

Three years ago the alarm bell was sounded – and suddenly the sports system was deeply interested in addressing sexual abuse and misconduct in the system. The birth of Safe Sport was a rush to the bank of Sport Canada to grab the resources being put forward and to jostle for positions to be named as the leaders of this work. It had nothing to do with taking care of athletes, and everything to do with logos and egos. And some organizations were crowned. The athletes have seen no change. These organizations either failed to or lacked the tools and resources to recognize that implementation is key. That no Safe Sport program is complete unless you educate and enroll every single member of your organization. Just ticking the boxes does not effect change. The focus on the complex nature and importance of implementation through enrollment and adoption was missing. 

The challenge with this “investment” in safe sport, was that it created rigorous policies and reporting, but did nothing to talk about the cultures in sport. It was not about how we take care of the athletes, it was about how we check off the box to protect our organizations. This is what leaders in the space like ITP Sport & Recreation call the “grey zone” of Safe Sport. The complex nature of the issue will never be solved through policies and compliance. The vulnerable environment of sport in this regard is complex and to speak of culture we must also recognize what norms lend themselves to creating this culture. 

“Safe Sport is often looked at as black and white. The reality is it is grey. I lived it. I lived the abuse. I can attest to the environment of cultural conditioning and normalization of abusive behaviors that was ripe for the level of egregious abuse I suffered. To rectify this we can’t focus on individuals and the notion of getting rid of the bad guy and moving on. We must ask ourselves what exists in the culture that leads to the acceptance of abuse and also what we need to do to repair and restore the culture after an abuser is removed from the environment. Find me a box to tick on that one” Allison Forsyth Survivor and Partner at ITP Sport & Recreation

Athletes continued to voice their concerns and the penalty for not toeing the line is high.

At the heart of the athlete experience is how each person can show up each day and have the opportunity to be themselves in the environment. It is about that athlete’s identity, their intersectionality, their opportunity to have voice, input, and to express themselves.

In a discussion with a national team athlete a few weeks ago, they were sharing how they experience things in their training environment regularly that they could make a formal complaint about, but they would rather have the opportunity to share these, and to help educate the sport, the coaches and the leadership about how to do better. This is a generous and gracious approach – and one that the sports system has not made space for – and the race to create “safe sport” has made these types of conversations and opportunities harder. There is no space in the system for humanity – for vulnerability, for building conversations based on compassion, and to find ways forward in relationship with each other.

When we consider the diversity of who could be in our sports system as we move forward, we haven’t made the space for many identities just yet – and when we consider how to build equity and inclusion in our system, the heart of that work needs to be thinking about how we create space for voices and experiences to show up in sport, how we provide the supports for each athlete to be successful rather than trying to fit athletes into our cookie-cutter of expectations. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are intimately connected to safe sport because those concepts are at the very foundation of what we need to be thinking about and planning for to create a system of sport that is safe. 

Until we appreciate the needs of athletes and centre our system around them, we will continue to create an exclusive system and system of harms.