As more allegations of abuse arise, Australian sport must be judged without fear or favour

Australian sport is heading for a reckoning.

On any count, it’s been a shocking week, with allegations of historic abuse in swimming revealed by the ABC, and in women’s soccer unveiled by News Corp.

But consider what else has happened this year:

It was that report that prompted three former gymnasts to create their own not-for profit advocacy organisation, Athlete Rights Australia, as revealed by ABC Sport earlier this week.

The group will act as advocates for those who have complaints against sporting organisations, and will keep an eye on the sporting and government organisations investigating those complaints.

The former gymnasts, Sophie Vivian, Alison Quigley and Min Combers, say they have all had their own experiences of trauma through abuse in sport, and have faced the dilemma of how to make complaints about that abuse and find some form of justice.

The central problem is one that Madeline Groves highlighted this week in an Instagram post in response to the allegations of historic sexual abuse in swimming.

Madeline Groves Instagram screenshot
A reply sent to Madeline Groves from a current Australian swimmer regarding the resources available to deal with complaints.(

Instagram: Madeline Groves


How to trust a sporting organisation to investigate a complaint when it was that institution that was responsible for employing the people that perpetrated the alleged abuse?

It took Lisa de Vanna 20 years to come forward with an allegation that she was assaulted during her time in the young Matildas

Sceptics often question that sort of time frame.

How common has been the refrain: “They never came to us with their complaint” in the world of sport over recent years.

But experts in the area will tell you that it can take, on average, around 20 years for women and 25 years for men to report sexual abuse.

Even when it’s not a case of sexual abuse it must surely take an enormous leap of faith to make a complaint to an organisation you no longer trust.

Trust is the central issue

As Alison Quigley said: “If you’re dealing with any agency that was originally involved in suppressing your voice and they’re the people that you want to go to for help, then you’re running into issues.”

There are other deterrents to coming forward: the massive power imbalance for any individual who takes on a lawyered-up sporting organisation is one.

And other inherent dangers like the victim-blaming that inevitably comes to anyone who’s prepared to stick their neck out.

It is no accident that athletes are increasingly going to the media or taking legal action against sporting organisations rather than rely on some form of self-regulation.

But change is afoot.

Sport Integrity Australia is responsible for overseeing a new complaints management process for sporting organisations in this country.

Football Australia this week announced they were opting in so that athletes in the top A-leagues and national teams can bring forward any complaints regarding “alleged abuse, harassment or bullying”.

Complaints will be heard by Sport Integrity Australia and if it decides there needs to be a hearing — for mediation, conciliation, or arbitration — that will be carried out by the National Sports Tribunal.

What remains to be seen is whether those organisations are truly operating for the welfare of the individual or the sport.

That cynicism comes from experience. After all, some of Australia’s leading gymnasts claim they suffered abuse over many decades at government institutions like the Australian Institute of Sport and the Western Australian Institute of Sport – all paid for with taxpayers’ money.

Nevertheless, government institutions deserve the benefit of the doubt as they bed in a new system.

And sports deserve the benefit of the doubt as they seek to atone for mistakes of the past.

But both government institutions and sporting organisations can be sure they will be closely watched.

Still, it’s only part of the story.

While professional athletes will have a means of having their complaints heard, there remains the issue of protecting children in non-elite sport — because that is where the bulk of complaints will come from.

We know of the complaints that were made public this week and this year.

ABC Sport is aware other cases are currently in the hands of lawyers.

Australian sport is undergoing an intense period of introspection that is long overdue.

It is no small thing – millions of Australian kids play sport for all the right reasons, and it is incumbent on all involved that their conditions are safe.

If they have cause to complain because of bullying, harassment assault, or worse, those victims deserve to be heard with compassion and without being afraid to come forward.

And sporting organisations deserve to be judged without fear or favour.

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