Education, awareness key to getting people to speak out on abuse, harassment in sport

The establishment of the Safe Sport Programme addresses abuse and harassment in sport.
The establishment of the Safe Sport Programme addresses abuse and harassment in sport.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - Many athletes, particularly the younger ones, do not speak out when they encounter abuse or harassment as they are afraid to speak out, unable to express their feelings or do not know how to identify harassment.

These were some issues raised at the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) Women in Sport Committee Webinar Series: What Women Want, on Saturday (March 27).

The inaugural webinar was moderated by Dr May Ooi, vice-chairperson of the SNOC Women in Sport Committee, and panellists included former national gymnast Eileen Chai; Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, chairperson of the Sexual Harassment Complaints Committee of the Sri Lanka National Olympic Committee; Joscelin Yeo, vice-president of the Singapore Swimming Association; and Azhar Yusof, director of CoachSG who oversees the Safe Sport Taskforce.

Panellists said that education and awareness are key to tackling the issue of abuse and harassment.

Kuru-Utumpala said that the main reasons athletes struggle to speak out is that there is often trust between the victim and perpetrator and a fear of repercussions if they do so.

"Because of this trust and abuse of that power and trust, you question yourself first. They might think... 'Maybe I deserved to be yelled at and scolded because I'm not doing well enough.'"

Athletes, especially young ones, may also not know what constitutes sexual harassment and that could be where comprehensive sexuality education for children could help, she added.

Chai, who had previously told The Straits Times about her experience while training in China from the late 1980s to 1991, on Saturday recalled instances where she witnessed the Chinese gymnasts being slapped and abused.

"For sports that require athletes to start from a younger age, before we could develop social and communication skills properly, we're thrown into this world of no love, hugs, communication or safe space," she said.

But she also stressed that she does not judge the coaches for what they did as they were "under enormous pressure".

She added: "They were gymnasts who had to endure similar treatment and they just repeated it. The coaches were not aware of the future long-lasting harm to young minds and ... speaking from my experience, they didn't do it intentionally, they just didn't know better then."

Earlier this month, the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth announced in Parliament the establishment of the Safe Sport Programme to address abuse and harassment in sport, with a unified code against misconduct.

Azhar said that the code will help the sports fraternity better identify what harassment looks like, how to address it and safeguard sport in Singapore. Over 150 safeguarding officers have been trained since the Safe Sport Commission was formed two years ago, he added.

"It may look different across different sports so we need to align and clearly define what inappropriate behaviours are," said the CoachSG director.

In dealing with complaints, the key is for national sports associations to remain objective, said former national swimmer Yeo. It is also important to put processes in place and to educate the community about them, she said.

"A lot of people think they had a part to play in the abuse or harassment and they feel it's their fault, and it shouldn't be (this way)... We need to all work together to create a safe environment for athletes, coaches and whoever is involved in sport," said Yeo.