“Sport is an empty vessel. If we allow it be filled with rogue elements, people who would rather protect sport than your child then … gymnastics scandal. We have to stop mythologising sport. We have to educate our coaches to a much higher level than they are now. We have to stop pretending that, in and of itself, sport is good” John Amaechi on CNN
Standing in the kitchen listening to Sports Report on Radio 5Live, scrolling idly through Twitter and wondering how to broach with son the subject of West Ham’s horror show against Wigan. Then attention suddenly and vitally arrested. Just 4.06 minutes of John Amaechi in conversation with CNN’s anchor, Amanda Davies, on a real life horror story: the sexual, emotional and psychological abuse of girls and young women in the United States gymnastics team for more than twenty years by a man who called himself a doctor.
Amaechi is right. We put sport on a pedestal, we give it space to operate opaquely, like, for instance, the church. After all, it brings salvation to nations, to presidents and kings, even if they have stuffed untraceable performance-enhancing chemicals into the systems of their athletes, like fois gras ducks. And in that darkness, humans being what they are, certain members of the hierarchy – be they coaches or doctors or other paraphernalia of the sporting state – help themselves to the innocence of young girls and boys while they’re about it.
Amaechi was also right when he pointed out that if the school French teacher yelled and screamed in the face of children for failing to conjugate their verbs, parents would be furiously marching on to the premises threatening lawsuits. But the sports coach is another matter. They are the priests and priestesses who guard the portal to the foothills of Mount Olympus.
And thousands of coaches are brilliant. Beyond brilliant: self-sacrificing, empathetic, ingenious, entertaining, Judy Murray, Sir Alex Ferguson (he didn’t shout at children before you point out that anomaly), Danny Kerry, Mel Marshall, those guys.
But what else is out there? In the grey area. British sport can count itself fortunate – or possibly better governed – that no truly horrendous episode of abuse, comparable to the Larry Nassar case, has come to light in gymnastics or any other discipline. Yet it might. If you ask British female athletes, the ones not afraid to talk about these things, so yes – OK, more mature, slightly feisty, retired but not unconnected – the “uncomfortable” atmosphere for women in British sport still exists.
“God, when I was 15, an England junior coach told me he fancied me. In his bedroom. When he’s locked the door. Oh yeah. All that went on. And the so-called banter was absolutely constant. The boys marked you on how good they thought you’d be in bed. They decided who needed a double sized sports bra. ‘Big tits’ was a constant refrain.
“When we were away, at Olympics or in camp, a kind of pack mentality took over. They were like 13-year-olds on heat. And the coaches wanted to be like them. To be one of the lads. You don’t report it because, like Harvey Weinstein, the coaches have the key to your career. I thought if I just rolled my eyes and if I ignored it … I just didn’t feel I had any voice.
“Sport is bizarre. The way people – women especially – are treated would never work in any other environment.”
This is a genuine testimony. But you could argue it is just one woman’s experience. It’s not indicative of a nationwide issue. Just as the bullying controversies in cycling, canoeing, swimming, Taekwando, bobsleigh and skeleton, among others, needn’t lead to a blanket assumption of wrongdoing.
Anyway, that was then. Maybe it’s changed. Or maybe not, when you speak to another athlete who talks about the plight of some female coaches who travel in an overwhelmingly male-dominated group. Away from home, they’re expected to adopt a “what-goes-on-tour-stays-on-tour” mentality. It can be awkward, intimidating, lonely.
The highest profile coaching role to a British female sport has just been appointed. And it’s a man. The qualified women who explained they’d rather not manage the England football team did so (according to the FA) because they were uncomfortable with the scrutiny that accompanied the job. No one is suggesting it had anything to do with the whole #MeToo ethos.
But what if further back down the line, we are not developing a sufficiently large pool of women coaches because the environment is not wholly supportive of them yet? Have sports, all of them, identified an independent reporting system for women and girls, athletes, staff and coaches, subjected to sexual – and any other kind – of abuse?
Sport is about getting somewhere. It’s about winning. If you’re chucked out of a programme, or complain yourself out of a job, that’s it. Game over. Putting up and shutting up is still an “attractive” option. Actresses, they can shout it from the rooftops. Even “hostesses”, whose warning bells didn’t ring over knicker colour requests, can go public. The FT, of all glorious Establishment entities, has become their confessional.
Women in sport? Not so much. Or so it seems. Look what it took in the world of American gymnastics. More than 150 traumatised girls and agonised families. “Why didn’t you tell someone?” you can ask the athletes who tell their “Hell, yeah, of course it was/is sexist and horrible” stories. “I didn’t think people cared … it was my sport … you’d lose your job … your shot at a medal.”
It’s important British sport takes this seriously. Much, much more seriously than has traditionally been the case. And in Dame Katherine Grainger, the medal-festooned rower who leads UK Sport, we have someone who has the integrity to see this through. She’s not going to go all Aung San Suu Kyi on us just because she has been handed power. She and her organisation are talking cogently about athlete welfare. They must also deliver.
Yes, this is sport. Our beloved preoccupation. A unifying force. Politically expedient, emotionally rousing, physically invigorating, mentally uplifting. But not always. It can descend into hell, just like any other human endeavour.
Someone’s got to be on the case. Luckily Amaechi’s one of them. “We have to stop pretending that, in and of itself, sport is good.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles