The Top 5 Challenges for Safeguarding Best Practice in Sport, from Sarah Lewis OBE OLY

In this guest blog, Olympian Sarah Lewis shares the 5 challenges for safeguarding best practice in sport, learned during her long career as an International Sports Federation leader and involvement in the Olympic Movement and sports community.

The Safeguarding of Sport

The paramount task of any sports club, team or federation is to ensure that all participants, no matter what level or age, can practice their sport in a safe environment free from harassment and abuse of any kind. To reach the level of becoming an Olympian takes years of dedication and, in some sports, children’s lives. In my case, I first joined a ski club at 12 years old, just over 10 years before participating in the Calgary 1988 Olympic Winter Games. I can now look back and really understand just how vulnerable I and other youngsters were during this period.

Now it is incumbent on international federations, national governing bodies, sports clubs and teams to implement professional safeguarding policies, procedures and practice.

The event that accelerated change in the UK

Since the Whyte Review, there has been considerable action and reaction from sport and the wider public. UK Sport and Sport England’s Policy Response to the Whyte Review published in January 2023, presented nineteen commitments spanning five key areas of support: coaching and workforce, performance athlete, good governance, dispute resolution and creating safer environments for participants, that sport’s national governing bodies and their affiliated clubs must adhere to.

At major sporting events and conferences I have attended and in talking to sports leaders, it has been striking that the Whyte Review and subsequent adverse media coverage for the sport has elevated the importance of safeguarding high on their agendas and the subject was continually mentioned as one of the most challenging issues to be actively addressed. Nevertheless, there are still organisations who don’t think that safeguarding is relevant for them. I was shocked to hear one CEO state that they don’t need a safeguarding policy as they are ‘educated people’!

It is now brutally obvious for sport that safeguarding issues, such as those revealed in the Whyte Review and the investigation and trial of former US gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, can have grave consequences for the existence of any sports organisation. A loss of reputation and questions over safety may make parents decide that a sport, or any sport in general, isn’t safe for their child. The subsequent impact on sports funding and sponsorship over time, potentially, could cause irreparable damage.

The Five Key Challenges for Safeguarding in Sport

Whilst varying in degree these are consistent, from elite sport down to ‘grass roots’ at amateur club level. To summarise:

  • Recognising that a Duty of Care through Safeguarding is a fundamental requirement: Unfortunately some organisations think it’s enough just to appoint a responsible person as a Designated Safeguarding Lead as a “box ticking exercise”. But does that person know how to create and implement a safeguarding policy effectively?

  • Staffing resources with the necessary expertise: Many sport organisations have added safeguarding to the tasks of whoever is handling other integrity matters, usually anti-doping and corruption, irrespective of whether they have any safeguarding knowledge, but often without any specific training.

  • Education and training for all personnel and member organisations (national bodies/clubs): Effective communication and education is an issue. For an international organisation there is the added challenge of dealing with members in different parts of the world with cultural differences and significantly varying levels of resources.

  • Provision of confidential reporting - so participants can report concerns anonymously: Without fear of any impact on their sporting career, such as team selection etc. This will encourage more concerns to be reported and therefore acted upon.

  • International cultural differences about what Safeguarding means: This varies country by country about what actually constitutes an incident or concern. What may be recognised as unacceptable in one country, may not be perceived in the same way in another.

In conclusion - where are we now?

The Whyte Review has exposed how seriously safeguarding failures can damage lives and impact an organisation.

However, now that Safeguarding has been recognised as a fundamental integration into the activities of any Sports organisation, there is cause to be optimistic, if the five challenges are being addressed. At grass-roots level it remains to keep spreading the message about ensuring children and young people are safe and building a sports culture of always acting in their best interests.

From a personal perspective, I’m supporting safeguarding activities to help make sport a positive and safe experience for all participants, and that it can serve as an important and enjoyable part of their lives, as it has been for me.

Posted Date

31st March 2023

Sarah Lewis OBE OLY
Global Sports Leader

A big thank you to Sarah Lewis OBE OLY for her time and expertise in writing this blog. You can keep up to date with Sarah on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

If you want to find out more about any of the safeguarding issues raised or wish to speak with one of our team members about your Total Safeguarding or Safeguarding Culture, contact our team of experts.

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