While medals are considered the ultimate measure of athletic success during Olympic seasons around the world, Germany has spent much of 2020-21 grappling with the undersides of some of its mass training systems and d very successful elite, holding them a mirror.
Advocacy for an independent center for safe sport to protect young athletes, vulnerable to sexual and other abuse – the run-up to Sunday’s federal election saw a rare consensus among parties on the issue of protecting young athletes.
Cases of violence and abuse in German elite sport (gymnastics, swimming, boxing) came to light last October, with gymnastics facing abuse entrenched in one of its national training centers. National politics got involved as the federal government is responsible for funding elite sport and these centers. As the country elects a new chancellor and members of the 20th Bundestag on Sunday, election manifestos pledged funding and support to tackle child abuse in sport.
While the main CDU / CSU parties affirmed their commitment to establish a safe sports center if elected, the SDP also pledged an independent point of contact. Alliance 90 / The Greens went further, with their electoral program saying: “We advocate a national strategy against psychological, physical and sexual violence in sport, of which the creation of an independent center for safe sport is an integral part. . They also called for a federally funded study to investigate the extent of sexualized violence in mass sports in past cases (called “Aufarbeitung”).
The FDP spoke of counselors in every center in the federal state, while the left also insisted on “better handling of past and present cases of sexual violence. We want to seriously consider the proposals for the creation of an independent center for safe sport. “
Call for autonomous control
Maximilian Klein, international sports policy representative at Athleten Deutschland (AD), an athlete’s rights group, led a discussion paper that called for an independent watchdog, separate from sports federations. “Since then (the newspaper) the debate has gained very good momentum, a broad alliance of stakeholders and parties supports the idea; and that was written into some of the electoral programs of our main parties, ”he said of a parallel movement in pursuit of Olympic medals – Germany finished ninth with 37 medals in Tokyo.
The independent investigation into child sexual abuse in Germany began examining cases of abuse since 2019, gathering testimonies from past cases and examining why there had been cover-ups.
Thirty-seven percent of the team athletes surveyed had experienced sexual violence. “Apart from supposedly mild forms of violence, such as verbal sexual remarks, 12% of athletes – 7% of men and 16% of women – have experienced serious forms of sexual violence in sport, for example, child sexual abuse, rape, unwanted sexual contact or repeated sexual harassment, ”AD’s discussion paper said, adding that it had criminal ramifications.
The call to establish contact points for young athletes, independent of their sports clubs and families to report the abuse, gained in decibels after around 100 victims shared their stories with the Commission.
“After a public hearing of the German Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with child abuse in sport, we looked for ways of structural reforms, looked at the debate abroad (such as in the United States or Switzerland) and wrote a discussion paper calling for an independent center for safe sport in Germany, ”Klein recalls.
While the commission’s findings were followed by a belated apology from members of the Olympic committee, resistance to an independent authority to oversee the cases has slowly seen political parties step down and take a stand.
Klein explained that the need for an independent body was keenly felt because of “the very asymmetrical power relations between athletes and coaches, as well as conflicts of interest of those involved.”
Several testimonies spoke of the reluctance of athletes to contact their own federation or the offices of assigned mediators, fearing that they would not be heard, believed or protected from remaining anonymous, having to bear the consequences of a report of abuse alone.
The United States had established the American Center for Safe Sports through the Young Victims Against Sexual Abuse and Safety in Sport Act 2017, and between March 2017 and February 2020, it have reported a staggering 5,000 cases of violence and abuse in sports, according to the AD paper.
Klein says cases of gymnastics abuse spread like a wave to many other countries after Nassar’s revelations in American gymnastics, and athletes finally dared to tell their own stories, sparking a global debate, including at German Olympic training center. “Here, too, the structural deficits of a closed ecosystem without any controls and athletes in strong dependency relationships became apparent – although many had long known this,” he said.
“The national federation, for example, still faces legal difficulties to fire the coach. Sadly, it took these horrific revelations around the world to raise awareness among those responsible. The pressure has become far too great to look away, ”Klein said, explaining why governments had to impose measures.
“The culture of elite sport must be aligned so that medals do not come at the expense of the health, well-being and human rights of athletes, including minors. A culture of speaking must become the norm, ”he added.