Sex abuse survivor Mhairi Maclennan condemns ‘paltry progress’ on safeguarding athletes against coaches

A sex abuse survivor has called on sports bodies to urgently address the “paltry progress” that is being made to safeguard elite athletes from all forms of abuse.

Commonwealth Games hopeful Mhairi Maclennan, who waived her anonymity in a Telegraph Sport investigation into sexual abuse in sport last year, has reiterated calls for an independent sports ombudsman to hold national governing bodies to account for the duty of care they provide – five years after the idea was put forward by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson in a major report into British sport.

In a week where five-time Olympic champion and Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins revealed he was groomed by a coach when he was a child, Maclennan has called on sports councils to introduce a centralized national register for licensed coaches which would allow for cross -sport coaching bans. “This isn’t about making some sort of criminal database, but rather a tool that helps everybody,” said Maclennan.

The recommendations come as part of ‘Stamping out Sexual Violence in Sport’ report published on Thursday by Kyniska Advocacy, the campaign group that Maclennan, 27, co-founded after going public with her abuse last year.

The athlete-led group already advocates for lifetime bans in sexual abuse cases but, in a greater effort to stamp out all forms of abuse in sport, wants lifetime bans to be expanded to coaches who are found guilty of emotional or psychological abuse, as well as mandatory reporting of sexual abuse.

Telegraph Sport also revealed this week the emotional abuse that American tennis great Pam Shriver suffered in a five-year relationship with her former coach Don Candy. “I would say there was emotional abuse. I felt so many horrendous emotions and I felt so alone, ”Shriver wrote in a column revealing her ‘inappropriate relationship’ with Candy-then 50-years-old-when she was just 17.

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Maclennan, a Scottish cross-country champion, was sexually abused by disgraced coach John Lees while she trained at Edinburgh Athletics Club after moving to the city as a university student when she was 18-years-old. Lees, who has never faced criminal charges, was handed a rare lifetime ban by UK Athletics last November.

The report also urges sports governing bodies to ring-fence funds for safeguarding in the same way they do for other operating costs, such as for sports coaching and world-class performance programmes.

Reported expenditure on safeguarding within UK Athletics from 2020-21 was in the region of £500,000, which equates to just two per cent of the £23m in funding the body receives from UK Sport over a four-year Olympic cycle.

A UKA spokesperson said that picture was not an “accurate reflection” of safeguarding funding and highlighted several safeguarding measures it has implemented within the past 18 months, including a zero-tolerance approach to cases that result in lifetime bans and a restructured safeguarding department with dedicated caseworkers, among other key changes.

Kyniska Advocacy co-founder Kate Seary, the Wales indoor 1500m champion whose former coach, Phil Bannings, was jailed for seven-and-a-half years in 2019 for abusing girls – although this did not include Seary – described the recommendations as a “ package deal” to help, not hinder, sport governance.

“We can’t call for better safeguarding and better welfare procedures in the future if national governing bodies don’t know what funding they have in five to 10 weeks time for welfare, hence our call for ring-fenced funding,” she explained.

A UK Sport spokesperson welcomed the report, adding that the body supports the implementation of a coaches licensing scheme and register to ensure that concerning patterns of behavior by coaches are identified far earlier. The scheme would be operated by a newly created independent ombudsman for sport, which Baroness Grey-Thompson said there was a heightened need for. “We only have to look at what Bradley Wiggins has come out with in the last few days to see there wasn’t a culture where he couldn’t report [grooming],” she said. “Sports can say they have award-winning safeguarding policies, but if people are too scared to use them because they’re worried about what’s going to happen to their career, they don’t count for anything.”

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Maclennan, who is hoping to meet the qualifying standard in either the 5,000m or 10,000m for this year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, revealed she still has ongoing therapy because of her abuse, although her athlete activism has given her renewed purpose. “I quite often refer to it as active therapy and healing – taking the thing that happened to you that wasn’t great and trying to make something good out of it so that other people don’t have to go through what I went through, ” she said. “Measures to safeguard children are still relatively recent additions, but there is more work to be done.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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