Sustainability Challenges: Safeguarding

April 13 2023

In 2023, the world faces economic, geopolitical, social and environmental crises against the backdrop of ongoing physical and mental health challenges among the general population. In the latest in a series of articles in which we turn to experts about the critical issues facing the sports industry this year and beyond, we look at the challenge of safeguarding.

Sustainability Challenges: Safeguarding

Sports organisations across the globe have been increasingly keen to highlight their supposed “athlete-first” approach in recent years against the complex and evolving backdrop of safeguarding challenges.

However, many believe the reality does not match the rhetoric.

Indeed, sport’s win-at-all-costs culture and its largely self-regulatory nature create a challenging landscape for protecting the mental and physical wellbeing of athletes, according to Mhairi Maclennan, Co-Founder and General Manager of Kyniska Advocacy, which supports progressive policies in women’s sport.

“Time and time again we see that inappropriate behaviour or rumours about coaches or management are brushed aside when their work is viewed as pivotal to success,” Maclennan says. “A coach will be banned from one club, but permitted in another, or given a slap on the wrist behind closed doors.”

Maclennan explains that “this culture runs deep”, with centralised, cross-sport funding programmes largely dictated by sporting success, over and above all other issues.

“In most cases, the funding that sports governing bodies receive is directly correlated to their medal count at major competitions,” Maclennan adds. “If a coach is accused of athlete abuse, but their two Olympic-standard athletes don’t speak up, then you can guarantee that that coach is at no risk of being reprimanded. 

“Sports across the board are seeking to have smaller teams at championships, only taking athletes who are considered ‘medal potential’. We’re telling athletes that their welfare, wellbeing and longevity in the sport is of no consequence, and we’re running the risk of sport becoming irrelevant.

“To add fuel to the fire, sport is largely self-regulatory. This means that there is no cross-sport, never mind cross-nation or cross-continent consistency of standards, policy or practice.”

Mhairi Maclennan, Co-Founder and General Manager of Kyniska Advocacy

Mhairi Maclennan, Co-Founder and General Manager of Kyniska Advocacy


When these challenges combine, they can be devastating for a sport, its reputation and, most importantly, its athletes.

Claims of bullying and abuse have haunted various sports. In Great Britain alone, governing bodies in cycling, swimming, rowing and gymnastics are just some to have faced damaging allegations in recent years, with various internal and independent investigations having been carried out.

Following the most high-profile safeguarding scandal of recent years in sport, victims of convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics doctor, reached a $380m settlement in 2021 with the governing body, the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee and their insurers.

Safeguarding, though, covers a wide spectrum of other issues too.

For example, it is widely acknowledged that emerging athletes were coerced into doping by senior competitors, coaches and doctors in sports such as cycling.

Meanwhile vulnerable youngsters, particularly in football, can be targets of organised criminals for involvement in match-fixing, usually driven by illegal betting surrounding lower-profile leagues in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. However, suspicious betting activity was actually identified in 92 countries across 12 sports last year, according to data monitored by Sportradar.

The huge range of potential safeguarding challenges places an onus on sports organisations to take a proactive approach, according to Jonny Gray, Senior Managing Director, Sport at Ankura, a global consultancy.

“Risk and audit committees in sports governing bodies should be assessing changes in their risk exposure at least quarterly with an annual full reassessment,” Gray says.

“If ‘safeguarding’ risk exposures have not been thoroughly, objectively and recently reviewed then this should now be prioritised. This is a very sensitive, high-profile and complex area which can now be career ending for sports leaders who have not yet got this nailed down.”


Jonny Gray, Jonny Gray, Senior Managing Director at Sport at Ankura

Jonny Gray, Jonny Gray, Senior Managing Director at Sport at Ankura

Urgent overhauls

Maclennan argues that if sport is to equip itself for future safeguarding challenges, numerous changes, including “large-scale overhauls”, need to be introduced “as a matter of urgency”.

One of these major changes, she insists, should be the introduction of structural oversight that ensures “sports cannot mark their own homework – not now, not ever”.

She adds: “There should be an independent, regulatory body to manage complaints, process reports, conduct investigations, and issue sanctions for abuse in sport. We’ve done it for anti-doping – because it directly and visibly impacts performance – so why not for abuse? It’s been done in Australia, and we should have the same across Europe.

“We must implement a national coaching licence register in every country. As it stands, coaching bans are little more than a soft warning. They’re difficult to regulate and impossible to enforce. Just last month, ex-coach Toni Minichello, banned for life, was permitted entry to an athletics meet in the UK. We have to do better.”

The latest incident involving Minichello, who was banned for life from training athletes last year by UK Athletics after being found to have engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviour, bullying and emotional abuse, should ring alarm bells regarding the scale of the broader problem.

On a related point, Maclennan calls for mandatory reporting, given that there is currently no requirement for individuals working in sports organisations to flag up known or suspected sexual or physical abuse to the local authority or the police in many countries.

“Statistics show that well-designed, mandatory reporting protects good staff and those in their care,” she says, before adding that lifetime bans for those found guilty should not be a controversial suggestion.

“Change the title ‘coach’ to teacher, nurse or doctor, and a lifetime ban suddenly seems more accepted. Coaches who have been found guilty of physical, psychological or sexual abuse should not be coaching.”

“If ‘safeguarding’ risk exposures have not been thoroughly, objectively and recently reviewed then this should now be prioritised." Jonny Gray, Senior Managing Director, Sport at Ankura

Smaller wins

Maclennan also argues that funding bodies should additionally ring-fence “an appropriate percentage of their funding for safeguarding policies, training and procedures”, although she admits that none of the suggested overhauls are overnight fixes.

“Bold policy, and legislative change is needed to better protect everyone, everywhere in sport,” she says. “However, there are some ‘smaller wins’ that we can start action on today.”

Among the vital steps that can be taken include the creation and provision of toolkits and posters to raise awareness of intolerable behaviour, to be displayed in sports facilities, while sports organisations should have clear reporting processes explained and displayed on their websites.

Transparency is also key, Maclennan says, helping trust to be restored between stakeholders.

“Currently across sports and across the world, there is a deep distrust between sporting communities and their organisations,” she adds. “Communicating through all available channels about coaching bans, policy updates and organisation change can help build back that trust.

“All coaches and athletes where possible should be required to pass courses on boundaries, consent, how to have challenging conversations on delicate topics – like periods and eating disorders – and undergo child protection training.”

Finally, the athlete voice should be all-important, Maclennan insists, if a genuinely athlete-first approach to safeguarding is to be adopted by sports organisations that want to back up their words with actions.

“Safeguarding advisory panels should be commonplace, and they should be populated with both experts and most importantly, athletes with lived experience,” Maclennan says. “Athletes are your biggest allies in shaping this cultural change. Remember, athletes are sport, and without them, we have no sport.”

Ankura is a global consulting company. Its sports practice is a cross-functional team of experts and advisors that brings to the sports sector an extensive level of expertise in risk, compliance, investigations, forensic accounting, construction, infrastructure, and geopolitical advisory – all underpinned by cutting edge technology. See here for more detail.

Kyniska Advocacy is aiming to create a sporting world that protects, respects, and celebrates women in sport. See here for more detail. 

Mhairi Maclennan of Kyniska Advocacy and Jonny Gray of Ankura will participate in InSport Education and Global Sustainable Sport’s Sustainability in Sport virtual learning course on April 17-18. Click here for more information.

What do you think are the greatest risks facing the sports industry in 2023? Add your own comments and join in the discussion by clicking on the link below.

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