Sexual abuse in sports

Sexual abuse in sports: How sports bodies here protect their athletes

Singapore Gymnastics (SG) general manager Karen Norden.
Singapore Gymnastics (SG) general manager Karen Norden.PHOTO: ST FILE

While existing measures are welcome, more education, vigilance are key to stop abuse fully

National sports associations (NSAs) and clubs in Singapore have adopted measures to prevent the sexual abuse of athletes, but officials say greater education and vigilance are key to reducing the risk of such incidents taking place at all.

On Nov 21, rope-skipping coach Roger Yue Jr, who is accused of committing various sexual offences against a teenage student between late 2008 and late 2010, went on trial in the High Court.

In the United States, Larry Nassar, who served as the USA Gymnastics team physician through four Olympic Games, has pleaded guilty to multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct. Over 100 women have accused him of assaulting them, including Olympic champions.

Singapore Gymnastics (SG) general manager Karen Norden said that a key standard operating procedure at the association is that it does not allow its coaches to be in the gym on a one-on-one basis with athletes.

A similar practice is adopted at Swimfast Aquatic Club, founded by former national swimmer David Lim. At least one coordinator is usually present at each of the club's training sessions (60 per week), with newer coaches receiving guidance from more senior coaches in their first six months.

Mr Lim, a two-time Olympian, said: "For coaches who have been with us for many years and built enough trust, we let them take the class on their own, and even then the coordinators are still there to keep an eye on everything.


ST ILLUSTRATION: LEE CHEE CHEW

"For private lessons, the parents engage the coaches after already knowing who they are, so there's that level of comfort and trust."

Accountability and visibility are key at the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA), with president Ellen Lee saying that if individual training sessions are conducted at the STTA, its high-performance managers and staff must be notified.

"There has to be accountability in terms of a proper roster as to who is using what and at which time," she said. "Our tables are all in public areas as well, in full view of everyone."

In sailing, said SingaporeSailing president Ben Tan, debriefs are held in groups and in a suitable location.

CUTTING RISKS

There has to be accountability in terms of a proper roster as to who is using what and at which time. Our tables are all in public areas as well, in full view of everyone.

SINGAPORE TABLE TENNIS ASSOCIATION PRESIDENT ELLEN LEE, on safeguards in place for individual training sessions.


PROTECTION IN NUMBERS

If we're sending any athletes on tour, we normally try to send a judge so there are two officials. In the time that I've been with Singapore Gymnastics, we've never just sent a coach and an athlete.

SINGAPORE GYMNASTICS GENERAL MANAGER KAREN NORDEN, on how precautions extend outside Singapore's borders too.


BEING MINDFUL OF SOCIAL NORMS

Let's say a female sailor won a big race and is very happy. In some cultures, celebratory hugs are totally normal but in others, it's not proper for senior officials to hug a young girl. So as a senior official, you can convey your congratulations and a positive message without hugging.

SINGAPORESAILING PRESIDENT BEN TAN, on how officials need to be aware of what can be seen as inappropriate interaction.

With many athletes having to travel to either train or compete, precautions extend outside Singapore's borders too.

"If we're sending any athletes on tour, we normally try to send a judge so there are two officials. In the time that I've been with Singapore Gymnastics, we've never just sent a coach and an athlete," said Ms Norden, who joined SG in June after 11 years at Gymnastics Australia.

For Dr Tan, who said his association is "naturally more cautious about these things" as there are many young sailors in the national set-up, "the important part is the details and how you think three steps ahead". That includes being aware of what can be considered inappropriate interaction.

He said: "Let's say a female sailor won a big race and is very happy. In some cultures, celebratory hugs are totally normal but in others, it's not proper for senior officials to hug a young girl.

"So as a senior official, you can convey your congratulations and a positive message without hugging."

All parties said they had zero tolerance for sexual abuse and encouraged victims to ask for help.

Netball Singapore chief executive officer Cyrus Medora said: "The players have their parents and teachers to speak to, should there be any inappropriate behaviour.

"Also, our staff are in direct contact with all players through chat groups for administrative purposes.

"The player must speak up, or their fellow players must do so, otherwise the Ministry of Education (MOE) or NSA will not know. (Speaking up) will also then prevent anyone else from being put in that position."

Ms Lee noted: "(Prevention) requires athletes to be vigilant, coaches to be disciplined."

Ms Norden hopes to help develop a child protection framework here that is similar to the one in her native Australia, where clubs that work with children are required by the government to conduct stringent checks on staff they employ. SG intends to introduce a child protection programme over the next two years to focus on educating athletes, clubs and coaches, she said.

"It's about making sure that people do speak up and have the confidence that if they do speak up, they'll be taken seriously," she said.

But Ms Lee pointed out that measures taken to minimise risk of sexual abuse must not be construed as making baseless accusations against coaches. "We trust the coaches enough to employ them, and we don't go witch-hunting to label them as molesters," she said.

Summing up the challenge, Ms Norden said: "It's not bulletproof... For me, it is about education, awareness and culture."

All NSAs, the MOE and national sports governing body Sport Singapore (SportSG) mandated in February that all coaches must be registered in the National Registry of Coaches by Jan 1 next year. This allows SportSG to better oversee the industry, and ensures that all coaches will have undergone training on ethical coaching practices.

A senior woman athlete, who declined to be named, believes a safe environment must be created for athletes to speak up.

"For me I always speak up if I know there's a problem... but other athletes who might be introverted and shy may not dare to," she said.

"I think the association, coaches and teammates need to create a safe environment for them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 03, 2017, with the headline 'How sports bodies here protect their athletes'. Print Edition | Subscribe