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Abuse Case Study: The Dark Side of Sport


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Status: 09/27/2022 00:00

For the first time, a case study comprehensively documents sexualized violence against children and young people in clubs of many sports. Most of those affected suffer their whole lives, also because they often found no help in their clubs.

By Lena Gürtler, Elena Kuch, Hendrik Maassen, NDR

Torn, bloody knickers after being raped by the coach, alleged 13-year-old love affairs with adult coaches, shame and pressure to perform. parents who are silent. Club colleagues who look away. “The reports are really very shocking,” says Bettina Rulofs, head of the study Sexualized Violence and Child Sexual Abuse Abuse in the Context of Sport.

The professor at the Cologne Sport University is one of the leading researchers on sexualised violence in sport in Germany. For the study, she was commissioned by the Independent Commission for the Study of Child Sexual Abuse to investigate relevant cases, as is also stipulated in the coalition agreement.

The Study, the NDR and “Süddeutsche Zeitung” (SZ), shows for the first time with drastic examples how children were sexually harassed or abused, mostly by their trainers in sports. Unlike previous studies, it is not about the numerical extent of the problem, but about specific cases and what perpetrator strategies and structural problems can be derived from them.

For this purpose, a total of 72 reports and hearings from those affected who had contacted the Independent Commission for the Study of Child Sexual Abuse and who come from competitive sports and competitive mass sports were evaluated. The cases of abuse relate to many different sports, including gymnastics and football, but also judo, horseback riding, rowing, handball and swimming.

According to study author Rulofs, it is not only in view of the variety of these reports that it becomes clear that the cases of abuse in sport are not isolated cases in certain sports. This has already been proven numerically. Rulfos had previously presented studies showing that one third of 1,800 elite athletes surveyed had experienced some form of sexualised violence in sport and that one in five respondents had experienced harassment or violence in sports clubs.

“I didn’t know I could have said ‘no'”

For example, Nora was abused by her coach as she was on her way to becoming a top biathlete. She also turned to the Commission and now spoke in the interview NDR and SZ publicly about their trauma for the first time. She had dreamed of becoming a biathlon star. At an Olympic base, she trained as a student with a man who was considered a “super trainer” there. Again and again he offered her “to drop by his room” if things didn’t go well in training.

When she was 13, he first grabbed her buttocks “to stimulate himself sexually,” according to the court record of her case. Later, “he touched my breasts and started kissing me,” says Nora. A guidance counselor to whom she tells this only said: “You have to be careful, he does that to a lot of people.”

The trainer repeatedly staged private meetings, allegedly to give training tips or to offer consolation. “At some point it was also the point that he asked me if he could sleep with me. I didn’t know that I could have said ‘no’,” reported Nora. Again and again he abused his training protégé.

Perpetrator strategies disclosed

At the time, Nora saw no way out: “I didn’t get it classified at all.” What the former biathlete describes is consistent with the analysis of perpetrator strategies in the abuse study. Often, the perpetrators, mostly male, would ensnare the athletes, and sometimes their parents, with social and emotional closeness, favors, special treatment, and supposed romantic relationships.

Even when Nora developed eating disorders, she remained silent. The dream of a biathlon career was too important to her: “I was afraid that I would lose his support because he also gave me important tips for training.” It was only years later that Nora noticed that the trainer kept calling other girls to his room. In her sports boarding school, his proximity to many girls was an “open secret” at some point, says Nora.

One of the main findings of the study is that clubs and associations often let those affected down: “The stories were pushed away, they were trivialized, they were ignored and as a result those affected did not get any help,” says sports sociologist Rulofs.

The parents of another athlete finally reported Nora’s coach. Nora joined as a joint plaintiff. In 2008, the trainer was sentenced to two years’ probation for 38 abuses of wards and children. At the time, the court gave him credit for the fact that he had confessed, was professionally established and that he now only trains male youths and men.

Protection from abusers

After research by NDR and SZ, the man is now also training girls and young women again. There is no evidence that he has committed another crime. On request from NDR and SZ, he referred to his “right to resocialization” and “professional advancement” and went on to say that “even after the conviction, he has not been guilty of any criminal offenses to date”.

According to the law, children and young people should be protected from convicted abusers. Therefore, verdicts such as sexual abuse of 20-year wards must be listed in the extended certificate of good conduct. With such an entry, perpetrators are not allowed to work in schools, for example. Schools must have the extended certificate of good conduct presented. For sports clubs, however, the regulation does not apply across the board.

The largest umbrella organization for sports clubs, the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), only recommends asking for the extended certificate of good conduct. He points out that there is no legal obligation to inspect. However, according to a DOSB spokeswoman NDR and SZ, all member organizations have committed themselves in a phased model to implement measures to protect against violence. Accordingly, by the end of 2024 at the latest, the extended certificates of good conduct must be regularly inspected for full-time, part-time and honorary employees.

Do not ignore the negative aspects of sport

But an obligation to have the extended certificate of good conduct presented is only “one piece of the puzzle” for more protection of children and young people, says sports sociologist Rulofs. Many clubs have made great progress and developed protection concepts. Contact points that are independent of the sports clubs, such as the Safe Sport Center of the Athletes for Germany association, are important. Above all, Rulofs sees a social mission: “That it’s basically time to interrupt this very positive story about sport, which we all like to support. Sport promises us health promotion, personality development, social things Together. All these positive aspects that sport brings with it. But what victims of sexualised violence report is the complete opposite of that.”

During her studies, Nora struggled with flashbacks about her abuse experiences. She was in therapy for years. Even today, she sometimes can’t stand her boyfriend’s hugs: “It makes me sad and angry at the same time that the coach has been giving me this my whole life.” She said goodbye to her biathlon dream for a long time. Nevertheless, she was successful in sport as a triathlete.

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