At first glance, the Olympic Training Center might seem a long way from the neighborhood swimming pool, skating rink, or riding school. It’s not as distant as you’d think.
Even for the elite few that one day carry a flag for their country on the world stage, junior athletics provide a microcosm for sport at all levels. In these early years, learning how to navigate feedback and relationships with coaches and training staff sets the tone for the athlete they will one day become. And, more importantly, what they’re willing to accept, expect and tolerate.
“Many advocates are focused on changing the problems in Olympic sports, and we agree with that. High performance sports need to change, because at the grassroots level, coaches replicate what they see happening at a higher level. This issue needs to be tackled both at grassroots and at elite levels,” says Rob Koehler, Director General at the international athlete-led advocacy group Global Athlete.
“I think the underlying message with everything we’re seeing in sport, whether it be the lack of pay for athletes, or the development of rules without athlete involvement, or abuse happening in sport, leads to one thing, and it’s the power imbalance.”
Power imbalances—that is when one person, such as a coach, staff or medical staff, exerts control over the decision-making of an athlete—were the driving force behind the establishment of Global Athlete, an advocacy organization created after a two-day brainstorming session with athletes.
“We give a safe space for athletes to come to—whether they are looking for guidance, telling their story publicly, or trying to force sports to reform and change. The unique thing is we always give athletes the final sign-off on anything we do,” Koehler says.
In practice, Global Athlete has been involved in recent efforts to rescind the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s high-profile Rule 50, which prevented athletes from using their platform at the Olympic Games to speak publicly on social and racial justice issues. If they did speak up, they would have their medals and/or accreditation removed.
“We managed to have Rule 50 relaxed to allow athletes to speak up without the fear of being sanctioned,” Koehler says. “With that said, the IOC still prevents athletes from using the podium to express themselves, which remains a concern.”
The need for support on this issue and others, Koehler says, is more dire than you might expect.
“The mere fact that sport thought they could have that power to take away an athlete’s basic, fundamental human right to self-expression speaks volumes, on the whole, about the system and where they believe athletes fit in it.
“At the Olympics, athletes have to sign away their image rights. They don’t get paid. They have to accept all risks. So, during Covid, it was actually in their [athlete] agreement that they accepted all COVID-19 risks, even if the IOC didn’t provide the duty of care. Or, if the competition temperatures were too hot, they still had to compete, and the IOC couldn’t be blamed for that.”
Such terms not only illustrate where athletes stand on the scales of power within sport, but often leave them feeling defenseless.
“It should be the other way around. The IOC should be protecting the athlete—if it’s too hot, they should not be letting them compete,” Koehler continues. “It’s so one-sided, and the whole structure is ripe for any type of verbal, emotional, or physical abuse. The culture of silence is promoted through the fear of retribution.”
If imbalance is rife at sport’s highest levels between athletes and governing bodies, including the IOC, its roots begin far closer to home. Athletes are almost always on the losing end of the power structure when it comes to those with direct authority over their performance—typically coaches, but also trainers and medical staff.
Though not an inherently negative dynamic on its own, power imbalance can lead to the verbal, emotional, and/or sexual abuse of athletes if mindful practices are not put in place.
“No longer is the status quo acceptable,” says Koehler, who cites the age-old practice of forcing hockey players to skate with sticks strapped to their backs to improve their posture as an example of previously accepted abuse.
“Little things like the coach yelling at younger athletes starts to be a normalized behavior. And the worst part of that is it then becomes normal to parents. The idea is that, ‘This is what it takes for your son or daughter to make it to the next level,’” adds Koehler. “Everyone is groomed to this whole thing of accepting it, staying silent—otherwise there will be retribution.”
And that reprisal can come in many forms.
“We’ve talked to hundreds of athletes who either fear retribution or have experienced it for speaking up,” Koehler says.
“When an athlete comes forward or wants to speak up on an issue, they’re not seen as a person that is trying to make positive change. They’re seen as a troublemaker or complainer. That sends a message to everyone else—whether it’s a team or an individual sport—that bad things happen to those who try to stand up and push for change.
“Sometimes, the retribution is open and easy to see,” Koehler continues. “Sometimes, it’s very hidden—maybe the access to training times is not there, or the access to personalized training, where now the coach is ignoring the athlete and leaving them aside. This leads to self-doubt and the athlete feeling like it’s them.”
To be clear, these patterns of power and control—isolation, gaslighting, minimizing, punishing, etc.—are abusive tactics.
“The power imbalance continues because athletes are told [by these consequences], ‘You know what? If you don’t like the way things are being done, there are 35 to 100 players behind you that would do what they’re asked without speaking up.’”
In healthy coaching relationships, by comparison, athletes feel empowered to speak up without fear of recourse and coaches are held accountable.
A preliminary first step toward making power imbalance in sport safer to navigate for all is actually simpler than you might think. According to Koehler, it starts with identifying what society agrees to normalize.
When it comes to young athletes that line often falls on parents to determine, and while verbal and emotional abuse can often masquerade as “tough coaching,” Koehler suggests using the ‘teacher test’ to help navigate the differences.
“I always give the example of what you saw your nine-year-old being exposed to on a soccer or football field, or in hockey, or gymnastics—would you accept what you’ve just seen or heard if the same thing were to happen in your son or daughter’s school?
“If a teacher got up, and started yelling at someone, and told them that they were terrible, or they don’t try hard enough, and your daughter or son came home and said, ‘My teacher just told me this,’ you wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, that’s just ‘tough teaching,’” Koehler explains. “You’d be furious.”
That same litmus test can be applied to romantic and/or sexual relationships between coaches and their athletes, which would never be acceptable in an academic setting.
For society, the lens often gets murkier in cases where both parties are “consenting” adults. Take, for example, Olympic gold-medal-winning soccer players Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain, both of whom married their coaches. Another report in 2000 found that as many as a dozen of the top-100 female tennis players in the world were romantically linked to their coaches. In these cases, negative blowback typically falls on the athletes. They’re accused of “sleeping their way to the top,” as opposed to being recognized as victims of abuse.
The fact that not all of these relationships go up in public flames or go on to devastate an athlete or team’s career (though some, including the 1996 women’s Olympic volleyball team, do) may lead some to equivocate on how big a problem these of-age coach/athlete relationships are.
For Rob Koehler, however, it’s black and white.
“Never should we permit or allow a coach to have a relationship with any athlete. I don’t care the age,” he says. “If you want a relationship, then you step aside as a coach.”
Establishing healthy boundaries, such as a code of conduct, transparent communication, and the ‘window rule’—where interactions with athletes are observable and interruptible—or the ‘rule of three’—where minors are never one-on-one with a single adult in a closed, inaccessible, or hard to observe area—can be effective first steps when it comes to protection. Though, Koehler cautions, when it comes to young athletes, continued vigilance and common sense are important, as even these steps are not a foolproof guarantee.
“On the surface, [the rule of three] sounds really, really powerful. But we know of cases where, for example, in the sport of gymnastics, it’s a husband-and-wife duo, and the husband has been the abuser and the wife has been the enabler.”
Strength in numbers
Established by athletes, for athletes, Global Athlete can provide a place of recourse for those who have been subjected to adverse outcomes due to power imbalances in sport. Whether that imbalance resulted in physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or a lack of representation on the national or international scale, Koehler believes the solution is the same. Athletes at every level need organizations that they can turn to for protection and support.
“The whole culture has been built on a premise where there’s no representation, no protection,” he says, adding that Global Athlete is often called upon to act as a liaison for those going through the complaint process. “If you’re coming forward with a complaint, you should not be left alone.
“What is needed is an organization that will walk with you every step of the way, whether you need emotional support or psychological support. On the other side, you have the sports administrators and the coaches who are backed and protected by the federations. They’ve got insurance, they have lawyers, they have people protecting them, but the athletes have nothing.”
In addition to advocacy groups such as Global Athlete, Koehler adds, intermediaries such as ombudsmen and athlete unions can help to make sports healthier at every level.
“Athletes need a safe place to go outside of the sport, or at least outside of the same people that are running the sport, because some wear up to six different hats in the sporting world.
“[They need] someone to take on the information, and to report it back, and to hold those accountable for what they do,” Koehler explains. This includes neutral third parties that aren’t tied to winning, costs, etc. and purely have the athlete’s best interest in mind.
“Sport becomes safer when athletes are involved.”
Read more about power imbalances on the #WeRideTogether blog.