How can ‘safe sport’ better protect athletes from abuse?

What is safe sport? It’s a broad concept but the core tenant is simple.

Federal protection for athletes from abuse in all forms — sexual, mental and physical, and at all levels of competition.

As calls for meaningful change grow louder, CBC Sports Presents hosted an in-depth discussion with panellists from across the spectrum of sport in Canada.

Panellists included Anne Merklinger, the CEO of Own The Podium; Allison Forsyth, safe sports advocate and former Olympic skier; Cynthia Appiah, safe sports advocate and Olympic bobsledder; and Jamie Strashin, CBC Sports reporter. The four joined hosts Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo in Toronto on Saturday.

WATCH | Safe sport in Canada panel discussion:

Safe sport in Canada panel discussion

CBC Sports’ Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo hosted a panel discussion focusing on the issue of safe sport with CEO of Own the Podium Anne Merklinger, CBC Sports journalists Jamie Strashin and Olympians Allison Forsyth and Cynthia Appiah.

Before there’s hope to make meaningful change, it’s important to tackle each issue plaguing sport as its own problem, rather than lumping everything together.

“We need to break down this definition of safe sport,” Strashin said. “It’s come to encompass far too many things. It’s concussion, it’s toxic culture, it’s criminal behavior. We need to compartmentalize these things and deal with them in a real way, individually. It’s far too much right now for people to digest.”

The common thread between many Safe Sport issues is that mistreatment often happens when winning is the singular goal.

This mentality is one that can be looked at as one that isn’t inherently results-based, as reflected by Own The Podium’s shift to providing resources over an eight-year horizon. This invests in future athletes on the podium pathway rather than just providing financial resources to organizations that medal.

“Sport is about developing great people,” Merklinger said. “In order for a national sports organization to even be considered for a funding recommendation, they have to have a wellness plan for athletes and every other participant that’s involved in their high performance program.”

Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton is one organization hoping to create change. More than 70 current and former athletes called for change in what was described aa “toxic culture” in 2022, leading to a new president and CEO.

“My hope is that Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton can be one of those [national sport organizations] that really pushes that envelope to show that it is possible to have high-performance sport in the context of keeping athletes safe,” Appiah said. “Keep athletes at the center of the conversation, but also not forgetting that the ecosystem of sport requires everyone around it to be safe.”

While enacting policies is an important first step in the process, commitment and persistence are the keys to making real change.

“We have been living in a world where we think a policy is going to prevent abuse,” Forsyth said. “Policies don’t prevent abuse. The policy has to come off the paper and into practice. The behaviors, the culture, what’s happening in sport is what prevents abuse.”

CBC News and Sports have been investigating abuse in amateur sport in Canada. Read all of the reporting here.

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