Tackling bullying in elite sport: best practice for sports organisations

Published 11 August 2016 By: Nick Tsatsas

Tackling bullying in elite sport: best practice for sports organisations

At first blush, we might not think of elite athletes as prone to bullying. We associate such individuals with strength (both physical and mental) and confidence, rather than with the vulnerability that bullying implies.

And yet there are plenty of publicised allegations of bullying in elite sport and, no doubt, many more instances that remain hidden from public view. One of the most striking recent examples of bullying in sport took place in the US. Jonathan Martin, a six foot five inches tall offensive lineman weighing 22 stones walked out on the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in 2013, following some quite horrific locker room abuse and bullying by his team-mates.1

Countries around the world will, no doubt, have their own examples of alleged bullying in elite sport, and, sadly, there are plenty of reported cases in Britain. Back in 2005, British Swimming launched an inquiry into allegations that Performance Director, Bill Sweetenham, had bullied a number of leading athletes.2 Sweetenham was subsequently cleared of bullying3, but left his post in 2007. Just last month, Emily Taylor, a former member of the GB women’s rowing squad, accused Paul Thompson, Chief Coach of the Women’s Crew, of being “a massive bully4 and made a series of allegations which are now being considered by British Rowing as part of an internal review that it is conducting into the “culture” of its High Performance programme.Of course, this year’s highest-profile allegations of bullying in elite sport were made in April, by Jess Varnish, the European and Commonwealth Games medal-winning cyclist, who accused Shane Sutton, the then Technical Director of British Cycling of creating “a culture of fear” within the organisation.Sutton has since resigned from his post7, rejecting all of the “specific claims” made against him, but citing a desire not to be a “distraction”, and indicating his intention to “co-operate fully” with the independent investigation commissioned by British Cycling and UK Sport into the culture within British Cycling’s World Class Programme.8  


The challenge: what constitutes bullying in elite sport?

It is beyond reasonable debate that, just as in every day life, bullying has no place in sport, whether amateur or professional, elite or grassroots. (For the avoidance of doubt, this article explores bullying as it relates to professional and elite sport and, in particular, what governing bodies and sports clubs can do to address it. It does not consider issues involving children who participate in sport, and who are subject to additional safeguarding.)

However, one of the major challenges of addressing bullying lies in determining what actually constitutes bullying in the elite sporting context. Identifying bullying in an “ordinary” workplace can be hard enough, not least because there is no statutory definition of bullying nor even, in fact, a statutory right not to be bullied. Thus, most claims that involve bullying in the workplace are actually framed as discrimination claims under the Equality Act 2010 (the most specific of the allegations made about Shane Sutton relate to the sexist and ageist comments that Jess Varnish says he made to her, and the highly derogatory terms that Paralympic gold medallist Darren Kenny says he heard Sutton use in reference to disabled British cyclists9). Alternatively, where the victim of bullying is an employee, claims may be framed as constructive unfair dismissal claims10, pursuant to the Employment Rights Act 1996


Elite Sports Working Environment


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Nick Tsatsas

Nick Tsatsas

Nick is a consultant solicitor and employment law specialist at Keystone Law. He acts for domestic and international employers, senior executives and high-profile personalities, and has particular expertise advising in relation to employment issues in the sports and media sectors. He has consistently been recognised as a leading lawyer in the employment field by Chambers Guide to the UK Legal Profession and The Legal 500.

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