Sports conference told safe spaces must be created for athletes to report abuse without fear of retribution.  

It is time federations, clubs and coaching bodies stepped up and did the right thing in the fight against sexual assault and harassment in sports. This was the message delivered by the keynote speaker at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) virtual sports conference on August 19 – 20. 

“What is the right thing? Stop covering up for the coaches and their organisations and stand up for the sports players,” said Olivia Jasriel (52), a sexual assault survivor and co-founder of Women and Men Against Child Abuse (WMACA) Athletes Against Child Abuse. 

She said victim blaming is a primary reason why victims do not speak out. “First rule…believe the person who is disclosing. There are very few reasons for a victim of abuse to come forward. They have far too much to lose and little to gain.” 

An avid tennis player in her youth, Jasriel first spoke out in 2010 about being sexually assaulted by her childhood tennis coach, Bob Hewitt, at the age of 12. In 2015, she played a key role in getting Hewitt convicted for rape and indecent assault of a minor, and sentenced to six years in prison. 

The conference was the second to be hosted by UJ’s department of sport and movement studies. Head of department Dr Heather Morris-Eyton said the conference provided a platform to highlight wide-ranging issues plaguing sport. 

“The main purpose for this conference is to educate and empower attendees with the knowledge of a holistic approach to safeguarding sport. It is important to highlight issues that are perhaps not talked about but are affecting our athletes, the federations, sports coaches and administrators,” she said. 

Anne Vermaak of Gymnastics South Africa spoke about the importance of setting up offices to hear from and protect survivors of abuse and harassment to make it easier for victims to report without fear of retribution. This especially after the highly publicised USA Gymnastics sexual assault scandal, and Netflix documentary Athlete A.

“Gymnastics SA set up a Gymnastics Safe Sport Commission [in September 2020] to give victims of abuse and harassment the opportunity to come forward and share their story with the independent commission,” Vermaak said.  

Although the commission was only operational for a three-month period, Vermaak says that it provided athletes with the opportunity to come forward and to be educated about their rights. 

The conference organisers believe everything possible should be done to ensure that abuse in sport is curbed. “There can never be enough done to create safe spaces in sport,” Morris-Eyton said. 

FEATURED IMAGE: The official invitation of the virtual sports conference held by UJ. Photo: Provided