Ministry needs to address sexual abuse in sports, create support system for athletes, says ex-gymnast

Former national gymnast Sarina Sundara Rajah says there is no ecosystem to protect athletes abused by their coaches or those in positions of authority.

Sarina has been a strong advocate of a safe sporting environment for athletes.

She was speaking on allegations by former national swimmer Cindy Ong, who shared with MalaysiaKini how she had encountered sexual harassment and assault over the years, including from a national coach, when she was a teenager.

Sarina urged the Youth and Sports Ministry to take this issue seriously as there have been several other allegations in the past.

“They need to make sure there is a support system for athletes who go through this,” said Sarina.

“There is a popular misconception that only female athletes are abused or harassed. It happens to male athletes, too.

“The problem is, our athletes are not taught what is appropriate and inappropriate touching. We need to empower, raise awareness and educate the athletes and coaches about this.”

She said Ong’s allegations were the unfortunate reality of what was happening in Malaysia. She added certain types of industries and organisations attracted predators. They include education, sports, and even religious institutions.

Sarina said eight reasons why abuses happened were:

  • Athletes do not know what constitutes safety, security and abuse of self from the physical, mental and emotional point of view.
  • Physical contact is vaguely and subjectively described.
  • Lack of private, confidential and safe channels for support, counselling and reporting of abuse.
  • Anonymity, security and safety are seldom guaranteed when abuse is reported.
  • Power of action and follow-up never lies in the hands of the victim; rather, the abuser manipulates the system.
  • The parallel idea of ‘A framework of conditioned obedience and respect’, which is the inherent practice and mindset of athletes in general.
  • Athletes are ‘fearful’ of accusing authorities of abuse because they may be blacklisted from ever becoming athletes again.
  • Athletes fear for their careers and futures in the team, and training for higher levels of performance, so they are reluctant to speak out against the abuse.

She added the definition of safety is psychological and physical, but what matters most, is to recognise that it exists in every country and in various ecosystems.

“Coaches and athletes only go through technical, nutritional and lifestyle training or courses,” she said.

“No one is told what to do or say if someone touches you inappropriately.

“How do you respond to predatory behaviour? There is also a fear among athletes that if they speak out, especially against a ‘successful’ official, no one will believe them.

“When this happens, they are in a constant state of fear. This is when their performance starts to drop,” she added.