Time to create safe spaces for children as grassroots sports slowly return

As sports facilities have now been allowed to open in Malaysia, grassroots sports operators are finding ways to restart their programmes.

The various lockdowns enforced since March last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic had brought grassroots sports to a grinding halt. Even school sports at every level was cancelled, forcing children indoors for more than a year.

Schools will finally open in stages, starting Oct 3. The Education and Health Ministries recently held talks regarding children heading back to classrooms, but it was unclear if physical activity was raised during discussions.

Nevertheless, the return of grassroots sports would serve as the perfect opportunity for stakeholders to start creating safe spaces for children.

Children must be given the opportunity and the space to express themselves in sports in order for them to realise their fullest potential. However, this is a topic that is often ignored, either due to ignorance or because it is perceived as petty.

Sporting spaces must be sensitive to the needs of children, especially young girls, and provide a safe and conducive environment where young athletes would not be judged or abused.

Creating safe spaces included ensuring the playing or training areas were free of sharp edges, rusty iron and uneven surfaces.

A fair and supportive environment is equally important. Parents need to realise the role they play on the sidelines and at home. When on the field or court, it is for the coaches and referees (or umpires) to take charge.

Support is important. Children must be taught that sports is about having fun.

Integrity is another aspect that must be looked into. The spirit of fair play and respect – for the game, for the opponent, and for the fans – must be upheld. There is no room for children to be exposed to any form of manipulation of results or rules.

Grassroots operators and school administrators can take the cue from the conversations that will emerge during the Sport Integrity Global Alliance’s Sport Integrity Week which starts tomorrow.

Among the topics that will be discussed in the next five days are sports governance, financial integrity, youth development and protection in sport.

A wide range of speakers – academics, officials, and former athletes – have been lined up for the various webinars. They include World Health Organisation assistant director-general Naoko Yamamoto, La Liga president Javier Tebas, US Centre for SafeSport chief executive officer Ju’Riese Colon, and Electronic Gaming Federation founder Tyler Schrodt.

A full day (Sept 17) has been dedicated to youth development and protection. The different views, real-life challenges and solutions will help sports organisations, and even schools, ensure safe spaces are adopted.

Children must never be exploited or used, even more so in a sporting environment. The biggest win is by creating healthy, creative, disciplined, and compassionate individuals at the grassroots.