Are young Olympic athletes receiving adequate protection? Part 2

Safeguarding policies and media intrusion at Olympics and Paralympics

Published 19 January 2016 | Authored by: Robert Tomback, Clare Freshwater

With the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Rio (Rio 2016) fast approaching, and with athletes getting stronger, faster and younger, this second part of a two part article considers the growing imperative of ensuring that there are sufficient and appropriate measures in place to protect the welfare of young athletes.

  • Part 1, available here, looks at how ‘child’ athletes are defined in law and then considers the disparities between the minimum ages for entry into differing Olympic events.
  • Part 2, below, moves on to consider the sufficiency of the safeguarding measures in place, examining the regulations of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the role of current safeguarding initiatives, and the adequacy of domestic laws to protect against media intrusion.

In this article, a 'Minor' is defined as anyone under the age of 18, with 'Young Athlete' referring to all athletes aged 19 or younger.

 

Safeguarding Minors in sport

Whilst participation in sport has many physical and psychological benefits to Minors, the IOC and National Governing Bodies (NGB'S) must confront the fact that sport participation also carries inherent threats to a Minor's well-being.1 Safeguarding in sport is therefore essential to ensure that Minors are adequately protected on their path to Rio 2016.

Core documents

The IOC has recognised this threat and in response developed two core documents which attempt to set out the protection of athletes in sport:

  1. The Olympic Charter, which examines the IOC's role in protecting the health of athletes,2 and
  2. The Olympic Movement Medical Code which sets out that all stakeholders are responsible to:

take care that sport is practiced without danger to the health of the athletes and with respect for fair play and sports ethics … [and should take] measures necessary to protect the health of participants and to minimize the risks of physical injury and psychological harm."3, 4

Using these two documents as a basis, the IOC has further published a number of consensus statements targeted at protecting the health of Minors in sport,5 followed by the development of athlete and coach educational tools.6, 7

Whilst these consensus statements provide useful guidance, criticism remains over their lack of practical implementation. To take the next step in protecting Minors, enforcement mechanisms are required in order to ensure such statements are followed.

Whilst it is evident that the IOC has taken its safeguarding duties seriously, sexual, physical and emotional abuse (collectively defined as "Abuse") still exists amongst Minors in sport, taking numerous forms and guises.

By way of example, at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games a 16-year-old weight lifter was found to have committed an anti-doping rule violation after being provided with diuretics, in an attempt to 'make weight'.8 Further, there have been reports of medical mismanagement where excessive use of pain relief has been provided in elite youth football.9

What else is being done to protect Minors?

Despite the growing emphasis placed on safeguarding, focus is still directed at recognising when Abuse exists within a sport.

The next step is to look ahead as to how the culture of the IOC and NGB's can actively show proactivity in preventing Abuse, and analyse which strategies are most successful in upholding safeguarding values.10

The International Safeguarding Children in Sport Founders Group has been driving such change developing the 'International Safeguards for Children in Sport'.11 These safeguards set out the actions that all organisations working in sport (including the IOC and NGB's) should have in place in order to protect the safety of Minors.12

Whilst these safeguards are essential, it is also important to recognise that elite athletes who are Minors require different support to amateur athletes who are Minors and safeguards should be appropriately tailored.

 

The safeguarding of Minors at Rio 2016 and beyond

While the International Safeguards for Children in Sport sets out an overarching structure by which to guide organisations, the impact of these principles will be shaped by the extent to which they are applied to the specific context, in this instance Rio 2016.

The adoption of the Olympic Movement Medical Code demonstrates the consideration shown to safeguarding whereby understanding is given towards the variable stages of growth, maturation and psychosocial development experienced by Minors, which links directly to numerous risks if not respected within the sporting context.13

Whilst such steps should be celebrated, it is important to identify where further improvements and developments are required by the IOC and NGB's in order to offer suitably robust and rounded safeguards.14

Steps to date have been largely reactive where an Abuse has been identified, but this remit now needs to be broadened to be proactive as well. NGBs are to be equipped with the correct tools to both investigate and respond to safeguarding concerns, but moreover these NGB's should be proactively promoting and developing a culture whereby safeguarding is ingrained within the agenda.

By nurturing such a proactive culture, a benchmark will be set as to the place safeguarding has in protecting the integrity of sport not just for Rio 2016, but beyond as well.

 

The role of the media

In addition to the adequacy of “safeguarding” policies (aimed at preventing direct Abuse), it seems important to consider the pressures that young athletes will no doubt have to face from the media and the press intrusion that will inevitable accompany Rio 2016.

One of Team Great Britain’s youngest stars, 17-year-old gymnast Giarnii Regini-Moran, is already a hot topic after being touted as a potential Rio 2016 'medal wild card'.15 An analysis of the press coverage Tom Daley received when he was 14 and competed at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 illustrates the intense media glare Young Athletes are under16 and a similar media fixation on Regini-Moran is expected in the run up to Rio 2016.

Legally, Regini-Moran will be a Minor until three days before the Rio 2016 opening ceremony.17 At the moment he cannot vote, serve on a jury or even make a will to secure his earnings. So what is protecting him and our other Young Athletes from the scrutiny of the media?

How UK courts deal with a minor's right to privacy

The law in England and Wales does not recognise a claim for "invasion of privacy" but all athletes are protected by a right to 'respect for private and family life'.18 In what is still considered the leading case in this area, Campbell v MGN Limited, the House of Lords found19 that model, Naomi Campbell, did have a right to privacy and this right outweighed a newspapers comparable right to 'freedom of expression'.20 However, exactly what information is "private" and whether they can demonstrate a reasonable 'expectation of privacy' remains largely an objective test for the Courts.

In the more recent case of Spelman v Express Newspapers,21 the Court found that "a condition of participating in high level sport [is] that the participant gives up control over many aspects of private life". In this case the Court heard an application to prevent the disclosure of private information about a 17-year-old England Rugby player. In this judgment, it was stated that "Children enjoy no general right to privacy simply by reason of their age" and the "material benefits of those few children who succeed at the highest level can be fabulous. But these benefits may come at a high price".

It certainly is a high price. The swimmer Rebecca Adlington was 19 when she won two gold medals for Team Great Britain at Beijing 200822 but following a barrage of criticism over her appearance she decided to undergo plastic surgery. She was quoted as saying "What has that [my nose] got to do with swimming? At first it definitely upset me. I'd burst into tears."23

The media fixation on sports stars is not a new phenomenon. Back at the Olympic Games in 1984, British/South African runner Zola Budd, a Young Athlete found herself at the receiving end of death threats when she collided with America's star Mary Decker during the women's 3,000 meter race.24

Media profile and the link to sponsorship

To be balanced against the Courts attitude to the privacy afforded to Minors is the commercial benefits available to Young Athletes. With risk comes reward, with many Young Athletes welcoming the media attention as a platform by which to attract sponsorship deals.

For example, British heptathlete, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, finished 15th at the London Olympics and is now the face of Nissan Micra, is sponsored by Nike as well as being tipped for a podium finish at Rio 2016.25

The Government,26 Courts and other regulators have expressed a desire to protect Young Athletes, but this has not necessarily resulted in a comprehensive system of protection being put in place. It is suggested that more could be done to ensure that athlete welfare is always at the forefront of objectives.

 

Conclusion

As excitement and anticipation grows towards Rio 2016, it is important to recognise that some of the athletes that will be stepping out to compete on the world's biggest sporting stage will still be Minors.

Rio 2016 will be judged a success to different people on a plethora of different factors – medals won, attendances, merchandise sold, sponsor values, legacy projects and viewing figures just but to name a few. However, within the juggernaut which is the Olympics, and within sport as a whole, it is essential that proper measures are put in place in order to suitably protect Minors.

Whether it is ensuring that minimum ages of competition are correct, the media are treating Minors sensitively, or proper and enforceable safeguarding policies and practices are in place - subscribed to by all national Olympic Committees – the emphasis is the same. Without effective measures in place, the underlying integrity of the Olympics will be compromised, leading to questions as to the true success of Rio 2016.

 

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About the Author

Robert Tomback

Robert Tomback

Rob is a dedicated Sports Lawyer working within the Mishcon de Reya Sports Group. He has wide experience across a range of sports, providing litigious, commercial and regulatory advice to clients. He acts for a range of governing bodies, clubs, players and agents and has represented clients in cases before the Court of Arbitration for Sport and other international sports decision making federations, as well as at domestic arbitral and disciplinary hearings. Rob was named as a Sport Industry NextGen Leader, an initiative 'to identify tomorrow’s sports leaders and celebrate the rising stars of the sports industry'. Rob is the only practicing lawyer to receive this accolade.

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Clare Freshwater

Clare Freshwater

Clare is a trainee solicitor at Mishcon de Reya LLP, currently working in the Fraud team. Clare is part of the firms Sports Group with experience acting for governing bodies and clubs, and is also a member of Women In Football.

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