Bid to stem sex abuse by sports coaches

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Sports organisations will today be asked to tackle the growing problem of coaches who sexually abuse child athletes in their care.

A private seminar of around 100 sporting governing bodies is being held to discuss child protection issues, less than a fortnight after the Government announced wide-ranging inquiries into abuse in children's homes and boarding schools, and new regulations for those applying to work with young people.

It is likely to result in new guidelines to improve child protection in sport, and a national register of coaches may be set up to prevent abusers working in different specialist areas where their past is not known and cannot easily be checked.

Also involved in the seminar is the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which has been working with the Amateur Swimming Association on guidelines to protect young athletes.

Concern over child abuse in sport has been growing in some quarters for some time, but for many the alarm bells did not start to ring until last autumn when former Olympic swimmer and Millfield independent school coach Paul Hickson was jailed for 17 years for abusing girls.

Statistics on the extent of such abuse do not exist, but Professor Celia Brackenridge, who has made a study of the subject and is speaking at the seminar, believes the nature of juvenile sport can make it easy for determined abusers.

She said: "It has taken me a long time to cajole the authorities into responding. Denial is the most common response to this sort of accusation. Sport is one of those things people see through rose-coloured spectacles. "

The culture of sport made it more difficult to tackle the problem, she said. "It's a blend of naivety, authority, fantasy, denial and dreams. If a coach says 'Jump' you say 'How high?' You want to be on the rostrum."

Her research to date indicates that abused athletes tend to be female, younger, smaller, with low self-esteem, weak relationship with parents, and a medium to high risk of medical problems, including eating disorders.

Risk factors for abusing coaches suggest that they are likely to be older men, large, with good qualifications, high reputation, and the strong trust of parents. They are frequently away on trips, transport the athletes in their own cars, and have frequent chances to be alone with them. Their commitment to codes of ethics or conduct tends to be weak.

British parents are too naive and unquestioning of the background of coaches, says Professor Brackenridge, adding that the abusers themselves plan ahead meticulously, "grooming" not only their victim, but also the mother and father in order to get what they want.

Dr Anita White, director of development at the Sports Council and another speaker at the seminar, said it was very difficult to gauge the extent of the problem, particularly since cases of abuse were now emerging years after they had happened. "We should be working to eradicate the risk as much as possible, " she said.

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