Australia

After allegations of abuse in gymnastics and swimming, a Canberra university wants to be part of the solution

The University of Canberra (UC) plans to establish a world-first sports integrity research institute, with a targeted focus on women, diversity and inclusion. 

It comes at the same time Swimming Australia is due to announce its own all-women panel to investigate abuse allegations.

A UC sports strategy paper seen by The Ticket shows one of the objectives is to build relationships with sports governing bodies for the “development of sporting cultures that value performance, leadership, integrity, fairness and inclusion”.

The lack of women in leadership positions is an ongoing issue in sport, as well as low numbers of female coaches across the sporting landscape.

In the past five years, sports bodies, including Swimming Australia, Basketball Australia and Sport Australia, celebrated the appointment of their first women as CEOs, although they no longer hold the roles.

Kate Palmer was CEO of Sport Australia from 2017 to 2020 — the first woman to take on the role.(

Supplied: Australian Sports Commission

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In the case of Swimming Australia and Sport Australia, the women were replaced by men.

Former CEO of Swimming Australia, Leigh Russell, tweeted this week: “One system in sport that needs review through a gender lens is the federated one. It is bad for women. Appalling numbers of CEOs (unchanged for 30 yrs), boards voted in by those running their own agendas, abuse of power and bullies allowed to hide within a system that works”.

Swimming coaches at the elite level are also heavily skewed to men despite there being more women coaches at grassroots.

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Figures from 2020 reveal of the 1,286 “development” level coaches, 51 per cent were women.

That figure more than halves at the “advanced” level with only 24 per cent being women.

In the highest category, at a “performance” level, just 22 per cent were women — or 13 from a total pool of 58.

UC’s Dr Catherine Ordway, an Assistant Professor in Sports Management who focuses on integrity, ethics and leadership, said the organisation’s vision is to become the lead university in areas such as diversity and inclusion.

The objectives of University of Canberra’s sports partnerships strategy.

“In the sports strategy is the vision that the university will become the lead university in a number of areas particularly around diversity and inclusion, women in sport – and that’s important, not just women participating, but at all levels and all parts of sport — and sports integrity,” she said.

“Of course, they are all integrated.”

The university has a strong Indigenous focus with former Australian human rights social justice commissioner and race discrimination commissioner Tom Calma serving as the university’s Vice-Chancellor.

Dr Ordway said independence is key to any integrity issue or investigation, such as the one that will take place in swimming and one already underway into the alleged abuse of gymnasts at the West Australian Institute of Sport.

“Sport Integrity Australia has said they will open the investigation into the WA Institute of Sport and will assist Swimming Australia as well to look at their issues.

“They do have in-house capability and they’ve also opened up to investigators within Australia to put their names on a panel so that Sport Integrity Australia has additional investigators to support sport in this way.

“That’s important.”

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Gymnastics Australia apologies after report reveals physical and sexual abuse

It was the lack of an independent investigation in the USA that allowed the sexual abuse of over 100 gymnasts to continue for years.

Catherine Ordway sits on a chair and looks at the camera.
Dr Catherine Ordway says ensuring the independence of an organisation focusing on integrity issues is key to its success.(

Twitter: Catherine Ordway

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“The big issue there was that they were investigating themselves, they were keeping things in-house, and they weren’t reporting really serious criminal matters of sexual assault out to the police to do the investigations,” Dr Ordway said.

“That’s an enormous conflict of interest that the sport would keep things in-house, and I think that’s been a huge criticism here in Australia as well.”

Speaking specifically about Swimming Australia’s next moves, Ordway said: “My recommendation is that they would make it fully independent the way that we saw Gymnastics Australia refer (their investigation) out to the Human Rights Commission.

Dr Ordway was asked how the university would maintain its own independence and integrity given its alignment or partnership with sporting bodies.

“The important piece is ‘when’ the university gets involved in particular matters,” she said.

“If the university came in after the event and said we’re going to assist to support the restoring of trust through building evidence-based research around solutions … to rebuild the sport … from assisting in the redrafting of the constitution right through to building whistleblower programs or ongoing education and training … to build values and ethics to prevent the kinds of scandals we’ve seen in world sport, then that’s where the university can play a really important part.

“My vision for the university is that we will build a multi-disciplinary international base here so that when issues come up you can work together and pull the best brains from around the world together to say, ‘this particular issue needs help in this area’.”

At the moment, the sport with the most pressing issue is Swimming Australia.

In a statement released after a board meeting on Tuesday, it said it had “a number of impressive candidates expressing a willingness to be involved” in an all-women panel to investigate recent allegations.

An Australian female swimmer leans on a lane rope at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Maddie Groves won two silver medals at the Rio Olympics but withdrew from the Tokyo trials shortly before they started.(

AAP: Dean Lewins

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The governing body faces numerous challenges – the need for haste, the need for a thorough investigation and the need for total independence.

There are too many examples where other sports have got this wrong.

It is a mistake Swimming Australia would be well advised to learn from.


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