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Crisis of abuse grows in international women’s sport

When Mali qualified for the women’s basketball tournament at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, some players received house and cash prizes for their part in the remarkable achievement of an extremely poor country and very little. supportive of women’s rights.

More Olympics will start in Tokyo next month. Mali did not qualify in women’s basketball. Instead, after a New York Times investigation, the West African nation is embroiled in the latest of relentless scandals in global sports, from basketball and gymnastics to soccer, artistic swimming and judo. .

The scandals assume a terrible similarity: allegations of systemic sexual, physical and psychological abuse of young athletes, many of them adolescent girls, by officials and coaches who are supposed to nurture and protect them.

The International Olympic Committee, international sports federations and national governing bodies always conscientiously condemn ill-treatment but seem unwilling or unable to stop it. In fact, their first instinct has been shown in widely publicized cases to protect themselves before the abused.

Activists told The Times they knew at least 100 female basketball players in Mali, mostly teenage girls, who said they had been abused by a dozen coaches since the early 2000s, including a 16-year-old who is became pregnant with her trainer and was pressured to have an abortion in 2018.

Hamane Niang, president of FIBA, the world’s basketball governing body, has stepped down as FIBA ​​conducts its own investigation. Niang is not accused of having committed sexual abuse but of having largely ignored the attacks of female players for a dozen years as president of the Malian basketball federation and Minister of Sports of the country. His inaction as president of FIBA, according to his critics, continues to leave women vulnerable in Mali. Several players said he witnessed the abusive behavior and did nothing to stop it. He denies any wrongdoing.

Two Malian coaches accused of abuse have been suspended by FIBA. The players told The Times they were extorted for sexual purposes by coaches, promised playing time and sports equipment if they complied, and stayed away from games and games. competitions if they refused. Additionally, the players said, the Malian basketball federation was aware of the abuses and helped cover it up.

This follows other appalling cases in recent years: the president of the Afghan football federation has been sentenced to life by FIFA for sexually abusing players of the women’s national team. The president of the Haitian football federation has also been permanently banned after being accused of raping players as young as 14 and keeping them as child slaves. Lawrence G. Nassar, the American gymnastics physician, was effectively jailed for life for attacking hundreds of young female athletes. Human Rights Watch documented 121 deaths at judo schools in Japan between 1983 and 2016 in a report on physical abuse of child athletes there.

Just days ago, a dozen female water polo players in California reached a $ 14 million settlement after accusing a coach of sexually assaulting them while they were underage. About half of the 11,000 athletes expected at the Tokyo Olympics will be women. They will be celebrated with good reason. But too many female athletes have also been wrongly left susceptible to abuse.

“How much is a little girl worth?” Rachael Denhollander, the first gymnast to speak out against Nassar, asked in the title of a book she wrote.

In too many cases, the abuses have not been uncovered by internal safeguards, often devoid of teeth, but by external watchdogs like the media and Human Rights Watch. And, as in Mali, by the courage of almost powerless athletes who bravely stood up to the powerful men who make international sport work.

“As the Olympics approach, world sports bodies – the IOC, FIBA, FIFA – need to carefully consider the protection of children,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch, who participated in the forefront of uncovering abuse of young female athletes.

“The simple child protection protections available in kindergarten are not being implemented in global sport,” Worden said. “These are all guidelines, all voluntary, and no one is checking to see if the president or the head coach of the federation goes to a teenage girl’s hotel room at 2 am to demand sex.”

The idea that sports federations can be invoked as a source of security “is completely illusory,” Worden said.

The IOC was invited by The Times to comment on accusations of abuse in Mali. His response indicated that the harassment and abuse was “of great concern” and suggested that victims contact the FIBA ​​abuse hotline or the IOC hotline. This assumes that a frightened teenager in Mali or Haiti would know of or have access to such a hotline, let alone the language barrier.

“This is about going around the cars at the IOC, not about protecting the children,” Worden said.

There are much more forceful and common sense approaches to keeping athletes safe, she said. Perform rigorous background checks on officials and coaches. Link the funding of sports federations to zero tolerance for any type of abuse.

“Global sport claims to be how children get education and economic opportunity,” Worden said. “But sport is not a positive force if you are a teenager whose coach is touching you inappropriately and you have nowhere to turn.”

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