The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities Declaration states that athletes have a right to the protection of their mental and physical health, including protection from harassment, and a responsibility to report harassment and abuse. Such acts are therefore a violation of athletes’ rights.
A number of athletes in Canada have recently spoken out about the harassment and abuse they have experienced in their sport. For example, in January 2021, members of the national senior women’s sevens rugby team made a complaint against their coach, leading Rugby Canada to open an investigation. In 2022, Gymnasts for Change Canada, a group representing more than 500 gymnasts and allies, called on the federal government to commission an independent third-party judicial inquiry in order to shed light on allegations of gymnast maltreatment.
This HillNote examines the issue of harassment and abuse of athletes in sport with a focus on the prevalence of maltreatment of Canadian national team athletes and some of the measures the federal government has taken to address it.
Harassment and Abuse in Sport
All athletes have the right to train and compete in a safe, respectful, equitable and harassment- and abuse-free sporting environment. The first efforts to protect athletes and promote a safe sporting environment focused on sexual harassment and abuse. The work of a number of researchers established other dimensions of violence that athletes can experience, including individual, relational (psychological and sexual) and structural violence.
In 2016, in its consensus statement on harassment and abuse (non-accidental violence) in sport, the IOC expanded the scope of its previous statement, which dealt with sexual harassment and abuse only. The IOC recognized that harassment and abuse can take various forms together or separately and may be associated with a variety of identity factors, as Figure 1 illustrates.
Figure 1 – Context, Forms and Impacts of Harassment and Abuse in Sport
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using information from Margo Mountjoy, Celia Brackenridge, Malia Arrington, et al., “The IOC Consensus Statement: harassment and abuse (non-accidental violence) in sport,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 50, No. 17, 26 April 2016, pp. 1019–1029.
Some groups of athletes are more likely to experience harassment and abuse or need particular protections, including women, children, athletes with a disability and Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and additional sexually and gender-diverse (2SLGBTQI+) people.
Current scientific knowledge shows that athletes from 2SLGBTQI+ communities are regularly subject to discrimination in their sport based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The international study Out on the Fields, published in 2015, found that 82% of participants who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual reported having witnessed or experienced homophobic acts in their sport. Moreover, the OUTSPORT survey, conducted in Europe in 2019, revealed significant differences within 2SLGBTQI+ communities. It found the following:
- transgender individuals were three times more likely to report having had negative experiences in sport than cisgender individuals (36% versus 12%); and
- transgender individuals were more likely to feel excluded from or stop participating in some sports because of their gender identity than lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals.
Extent of Maltreatment in Sport in Canada
To determine the prevalence of experiences of maltreatment, a survey of over 1,000 current and retired Canadian national team athletes was conducted in 2019. This was the first study of its kind carried out in more than 20 years. The form of maltreatment the athletes reported most frequently was psychological harm (such as being shouted at, insulted or humiliated), followed by neglect (such as being treated unfairly or forced to train while injured).
Across all types of maltreatment, a significantly larger percentage of women than men reported having experienced at least one type of maltreatment.
Figure 2 – Proportion of Respondents Who Reported Experiencing at Least One Form of Maltreatment, by Status and Gender
Note: One survey respondent who reported having experienced at least one type of harm declared a gender identity other than “man” or “woman.”
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data from Gretchen Kerr, Erin Willson and Ashley Stirling, Prevalence of Maltreatment Among Current and Former National Team Athletes, 30 April 2019, p. 13.
While some research shows that young athletes with a disability are more likely to experience harassment and abuse, the results of the 2019 survey of Canadian national team athletes did not reveal a statistically significant difference in the prevalence of maltreatment among para‑athletes relative to athletes without a disability. However, twice the number of para‑athletes reported experiencing situations where their basic needs were not met compared with athletes without a disability (20% versus 9%). The study’s authors emphasized the need for further research into the maltreatment experiences of para‑athletes in order to develop prevention strategies that address their unique circumstances.
Although Canada received the top “inclusion score” among the countries examined, the results of the 2015 study Out on the Fields showed that homophobic acts are widespread in Canadian sport: 53% of Canadian gay, lesbian or bisexual participants reported experiencing homophobic acts (57% of gay athletes and 45% of lesbian athletes).
In recent years, a number of Canadian athletes have spoken out about the racism and discrimination they have experienced in their sport as well as in Canadian society more broadly. According to Canadian Women & Sport and the E-Alliance, more research on the experiences of Black, Indigenous and racialized athletes is needed to better understand their situations and break down the barriers they may face.
Parliament of Canada and Federal Government Actions
Together with the other levels of government and national sport organizations (NSOs), the federal government plays a key role in ensuring a safe sporting environment for athletes.
In 2017, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage presented a report entitled Women and Girls in Sport in which it examined the issue of sexual harassment in sport. This committee recommended that the federal government “build on the initiatives…to eradicate harassment and abuse from Canadian sport, and continue to support activities that make sport safer and more accessible.”
As well, on 31 October 2022, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women agreed to undertake a study on sport and the status of women, including the physical and emotional health and safety of women and girls in sport.
The federal government’s commitment to creating a healthy and safe sporting environment takes several forms, including the following:
- The Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC): In 2021, the federal government tasked the SDRCC with establishing an independent mechanism to handle complaints of abuse in sport. This mechanism will serve to implement a code of conduct and provide a safe and independent process for reporting incidents. That year, the mandate letter for the Minister of Sport reiterated the government’s commitment to launching this mechanism.
- The Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS): Developed through consultations with the sport community, the Code was published on behalf of NSOs, multi-sport service organizations and members of the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Sport Institute Network. Every organization funded by Canadian Heritage’s Sport Support Program must integrate the Code’s principles into their activities.
- The Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC): The OSIC is an independent body responsible for receiving complaints about alleged violations of the UCCMS. In April 2022, the SDRCC appointed Sarah-Ève Pelletier as Sport Integrity Commissioner of Canada. The OSIC became operational on 20 June 2022. The Government of Canada announced that use of the services of the OSIC will gradually become mandatory for all NSOs.
- The Canadian Sport Helpline (the Helpline): The federal government funds this service, which was created in 2019 and is jointly managed by the SDRCC and the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport. The Helpline offers members of the sport community support, a way to share their concerns, and advice regarding incidents of harassment, abuse or discrimination, for both witnesses and victims.
Conference of Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministers Responsible for Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation. Red Deer Declaration – For the Prevention of Harassment, Abuse and Discrimination in Sport.
Donnelly, Peter, and Gretchen Kerr. Revising Canada’s Policies on Harassment and Abuse in Sport: A Position Paper and Recommendations. Centre for Sport Policy Studies, August 2018.
Government of Canada. Working Group on Gender Equity in Sport of the Minister of Science and Sport.
International Olympic Committee. IOC Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations.
International Olympic Committee. Safeguarding Athletes from Harassment and Abuse in Sport – IOC Toolkit for IFs and NOCs Related to Creating and Implementing Athlete Safeguarding Policies and Procedures.
By Gabrielle de Billy Brown and Dominique Montpetit, Library of Parliament