Former professional cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins, a Tour de France winner and multiple Olympic gold medallist, has told Men’s Health magazine that he was sexually groomed by a coach when he was around 13 years old.
The allegations made by Wiggins hark back to a time when the possibility of widespread sexual abuse in sport, particularly against boys, was widely dismissed. But although more protection for children is now in place, the sexual abuse of children in sport is certainly not a thing of the past. In fact, it is widespread.
Together with colleagues, I have recently carried out a survey of over 10,000 18- to 30-year-olds in six European countries with an average age of 24. It explored their experiences of abuse in sport, from peers or adults, before they turned 18.
The survey found that 35% of the respondents had experienced sexual abuse without physical contact, such as sexual comments or being shown sexual images, before the age of 18. Furthermore, 20% overall – 26% of men and 14% of women – reported at least one experience of sexual abuse that involved physical or bodily contact, such as sexual touching.
The survey findings indicate that there is a serious and shocking amount of forced, unwanted, or inappropriate sexual activity within children’s sport. Our survey found that the majority who experienced abuse (both sexual and non-sexual) did not tell anyone about their most serious experience. Only around 6% asked for support from someone within sport.
Raising the issue
The issue of sexual abuse of children in sport was first raised in the 1980s by feminist academic and campaigner Celia Brackenridge. Brackenridge received a good deal of criticism for suggesting that sport might have a problem with sexually abusive coaches.
In the 1990s, though, her efforts were accompanied by the disclosures of athletes who had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their coaches. The conviction of British national swimming coach Paul Hickson in 1995 for the sexual assault of teenagers in elite squads was a landmark case. A number of complaints of sexual assault by coaches in Irish swimming also gained public attention in the same time period.
But people often assumed that child sexual abuse involved a male perpetrator and a female victim. This helped to conceal the abuse of boys in sport and silenced victims. The mis-perception that boys were not victims of sexual abuse often stemmed from traditional attitudes about what it means to be a “real man”, which consider being a victim as a weakness.
In the 80s, 90s and later, these assumptions – which are still present in some male sport settings – provided the perfect context for those who chose to victimise boys.
The impact of the coverage concerning a growing number of cases of sexual abuse in sport could not be ignored, however. Some of the country’s leading governing bodies and national sport agencies collaborated on a national strategy that saw the establishment of the Child Protection in Sport Unit in 2001. This marked the beginning of a sustained and systematic approach to child protection – or “safeguarding” – in UK sport for those sports that received government funding.
Nevertheless, people continued to assume that child abuse happened in isolated incidents rather than being willing to consider that it was widespread and potentially institutionalised. In one research survey in the early 2000s, a coach described the introduction of child protection policy in Rugby League as a “sledgehammer to crack a nut situation”.
What’s more, the voices of survivors of sexual abuse in sport were still largely absent within approaches to safeguarding. In the 2010s, I worked with colleagues across Europe to develop the Voices for Truth and Dignity in Sport (VOICE) project, which led to survivors coming forward to tell the people who fund and manage sport what had happened to them.
Following the VOICE project, Sport England established the Sport England Safeguarding Advisory Panel in September 2017 to ensure the views of survivors would be included in safeguarding strategy, and the English Football Association set up the FA Survivor Support and Safeguarding Advisory Group.
Listening to survivors
Survivor testimony helped to bring awareness to the abuse of boys. In 2016, footballer Andy Woodward spoke about his abuse as a young player by the convicted child sex offender Barry Bennell. This led to a wider investigation in football which indicated nearly 900 victims, nearly all of them male.
In 2019, the Professional Footballers’ Association established a survivor support advocate service.
Safeguarding policies and procedures in British sport have continued to develop over the past 20 years, alongside a community of safeguarding officers tasked with implementing policy and a number of independent organisations that provide resources for the sport sector, such as the NWG Network. Nevertheless, safeguarding policies can also act as a comfort blanket for sport organisations, providing the impression of change while internal cultures remain the same.
Assuming that policy will prevent abuse, that it will enable children and young people to report their own abuse or ensure that adults will both recognise and report child abuse in their midst, is simply to repeat the errors of the past.
There is no legal requirement for anyone working with minors in England to report child sexual abuse. Research has found that when mandatory reporting was introduced in Western Australia, the number of substantiated investigations into child sexual abuse doubled.
Efforts to prevent abuse must include listening to and acting on the testimonies of victims. The voices and perspectives of those affected by abuse, sexual violence and unwanted sexual attention are vital for a strong safeguarding system. Their public disclosures will undoubtedly provide support for victims. Hopefully, they will reach the ears of children who are currently being groomed or abused and the adults entrusted with their care.