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The worrying trend of sexual abuse in sports

Sexual violence against children and young people in sports is a problem that has only recently started to be publicized. Sports associations are implementing protective measures, but more awareness is needed.

Sexual violence in sport is a pressing issue. An abuse scandal in English football recently brought the topic to light but there are victims of similar cases in other countries, including Germany.

According to "Safe Sport" a research project on children and teenagers in competitive sports, a large proportion of the 1,800 athletes interviewed for the study claim to be or have been a victim of abuse. The majority of them were under the age of 18 at the time of the incident. Along with physical abuse, the study also included victims who have suffered psychologically. This has included being stared at, catcalling and or having to watch others have sex.

"One third of all athletes who were interviewed have at least experienced a form of sexual violence," said Bettina Rulofs of the Institute for Sociology and Gender Research at the German Sports University in Cologne. "One out of nine interviewees suffered severe or recurring sexual violence." Rulofs and her team at the university conducted the study together with the Department of Child and Youth Psychiatry at the Ulm University Hospital.

"When we take into account the cases that include body contact, about five percent of female athletes and one percent of male athletes have suffered this type of abuse," said project manager and child psychiatrist Marc Allroggen. The figures of abuse among young athletes are similar to those of the general population.

Qualified personnel

Regardless of any statistics, any case of sexual violence involving children or teenagers is one too many. Most victims continue to suffer decades after the incident. They have feelings of shame and embarrassment, many suffer from anxiety and eating disorders as a result of the psychological trauma they experienced. In some extreme cases, drug addiction is also a consequence.

Mädchen bei der Gymnastik (picture-alliance/dpa)

Physical contact between instructors and athletes is common but when is it too much?

"According to the data, sporting associations and teams are responsible of increasing protection for children and teenagers against sexual assault," said Rulofs during a radio interview after the publication of her study. In some ways, this demand has been met by Deutsche Sportjugend (dsj), an organization responsible for competitive sports at youth level and also involved in the "Safe Sport" project. The organization has designated specific personnel who act as counselors for the prevention of sexual violence.

About 80 percent of the top sports associations, including 20 sports associations organized by the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), have employed counselors. The associations under the DOSB focus on promoting values, education, science and health in and through sport. As another preventative measure, coaches and exercise instructors in almost every state in Germany will be offered training to become a qualified counselor.

Increased investments in prevention

Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig Missbrauchsbeauftragte des Bundes Archiv 2013 (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache)

Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig

However, according to dsj, there are about 90,000 sports clubs that still need to be acquainted with sexual violence prevention. According to a survey, only half of the participating associations stated that the topic was relevant to sports clubs and only a third of them have been proactive on the issue. Moreover, regular training on sexual violence prevention is only carried out in few clubs. Only one in ten sports club have a counselor to whom victims can turn to.

"We need to invest more in prevention, that is what I try to push for politically but the organizations have to do their part," said Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig, the federal government’s head of the Independent Commission for Dealing with Sexual Abuse of Children. "We need protection concepts and counselors in all sports clubs. The study 'Safe Sport' shows that prevention can significantly lower cases of sexual violence from happening."

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