How sport is getting safer in Singapore

06 Nov 2020

By Justin Kor

Much has changed since Lim Heem Wei began training as an artistic gymnast in the early 2000s. Back then, to be proficient in a perfectionist sport that featured mind boggling feats of flexibility and strength, she often went through punishing training routines. For instance, perfecting the salto – a somersault – required repeating the movement over a hundred times in a single sitting. It often left her physically and mentally drained.

“If you don’t do it right, you just have to keep repeating it until you get it. There were few methods, drills, and knowledge around finding alternative ways to master a complex skill. It was very taxing on both the coaches and gymnasts,” said Lim, who was Singapore’s first gymnast to qualify for the Olympic Games.

Lim Heem Wei is the first Singaporean gymnast to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2012. She is now a coach and administrator at Singapore Gymnastics.

Coaches also had to be in constant physical contact with athletes, supporting them during precarious moves. The nature of training often sees gymnastics deemed as a sport at higher risk to sexual and psychological abuse.

But thanks to better resources and improved coaching methodologies, such practices are seldom seen now. Complicated movements have been broken down into simpler skills for athletes to work on progressively, and coaches no longer have to be in such close contact – making training physically and psychologically safer. “Nowadays, we have better facilities and more knowledge on alternative methods to help gymnasts master the same skill,” said Lim.

Terminologies have changed too. What Lim knew as “welfare” back then, is known as Safe Sport today – a concerted effort made by sporting authorities in Singapore to formalise and ensure the well-being of its athletes.

For instance, Singapore Gymnastics (SG) has a comprehensive 43-page dossier that details a protection policy for its athletes. Protocols are in place to address the likes of anti-discrimination, harassment and sexual abuse. Coaches also now have to abide by a code of ethical practice.

“All coaching courses now have sections on child safety, with its core being athlete centric,” said SG’s general manager Karen Norden. “We need to take a measured approach to ensure that coaches and clubs are aware and educated as much as possible.”

The issue of Safe Sport, which covers all forms of harassment and abuse, has become a major international issue in recent years. It has led to Singapore stepping up efforts to provide safe training environments for athletes. In 2018, Sport Singapore (SportSG) set up the Safe Sport Taskforce, which was swiftly followed by the formation of the Safe Sport Commission the following year.

“Everyone is entitled to a safe sporting environment, and no athlete should have to experience any form of harassment or abuse when pursuing their sporting dreams,” said commission chairman Chan Yen San.

“Not only do we want every athlete to feel safe and assured that it is all right to talk about such topics and seek help, but we also want them to be courageous and proactive in raising and reporting any red flags to the relevant bodies or authorities.”

A sporting safety net

There has been a growing global band of athletes speaking out about training abuses, with the 2016 USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal being a watershed moment – when it was revealed that national team doctor Larry Nasser had abused hundreds of female athletes for over two decades.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recognised the need to swiftly address the issue, developing a toolkit for National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and International Federations that consists of policies and procedures to safeguard athletes in 2016. This year, it has also organised a series of Safe Sport webinars for NOCs to attend.

Cases of abuse have also happened in Singapore, with coaches making national headlines for sexual misconduct and harassment. Two athletes – former national figure skater Jessica Yu and ex-gymnast Eileen Chai have spoken out about being abused while training in China. Yu had decided to do so after watching Athlete A, a Netflix documentary that detailed the scandal surrounding American gymnastics.

Indeed, it was the events in the US that kicked off the Safe Sport movement in Singapore. Previously, there had been no centralised guidelines, with past incidents managed by the National Registry of Coaches. Since then, both commission and taskforce have accelerated the development of Safe Sport practices, setting up a framework with guiding principles to protect athletes.

A four-pronged strategy is now in place that ranges from raising awareness to enforcing discipline. Forum and workshops are held with athletes, coaches and overseas sporting bodies to share best practices. Training is conducted for safeguarding officers, who were deployed for the first time at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games. Over 100 officers have been trained since, with the aim to have at least one in each national sports association by the end of this year.

National short-track speed skater and coach Lucas Ng (left, in white cap) feels that there is still a long way to go in putting in more effort to increase awareness on safe sport. Photo: Lucas Ng

“There has been great work, with more workshops and and seminars,” said national short-track speed skater and coach Lucas Ng, adding that there is still a long way to go in spreading awareness among the athletes. “Although a lot has been done, we still need to put in more effort to get them to know that such causes and movements are happening,” he said.

So far, four cases of safe sport violations have emerged since the introduction of new measures, which remain confidential. “We want to establish a strong and robust system so that we can manage every Safe Sport incident that is reported, even those which happened 10 years ago,” said head of CoachSG Azhar Yusof, who leads the Safe Sport taskforce at SportSG.

A wholesale cultural shift

Leading the SafeSport Task Force in Singapore is the head of CoachSG at Sport Singapore, Azhar Yusof. Photo: CoachSG

To increase the success of these measures, athletes can also play a role, said Lim, who is now a gymnastics coach. Sometimes, coaches too are placed in a difficult position.

“We hope that athletes don’t exploit these new measures too. The most important thing is to have open communication with the organisation and coaches,” she said. “If there’s open communications, there’s trust. Problems come about where there is a distrust, or lag in communication.

“First and foremost, whoever coming into competitive sport must know the rights they have as an athlete, even if a coach tells you to do a certain thing,” added Ng.

A cultural shift is also needed, with many coaches still using old-school methods which might be unacceptable according to Safe Sport regulations today. “Their coaching practices were shaped by their own past experiences as athletes and they have a very entrenched belief that sporting success can only be achieved through those methods. Changing that mindset and belief will take time and much effort but we are fully committed to drive that positive change in our coaches,” said Mr Yusof.

Education will be key for this to happen, with SportSG launching online modules on safe sports for coaches by the end of this year. “It will be a new narrative for sports moving forward,” added Mr Yusof. “Now, coaches will need to ask for permission to adjust an athlete’s limbs or posture.”

The lessons gleaned from Safe Sport practices can also be applied on a larger scale, said SNOC secretary-general Chris Chan. “We have done a fair bit over the last two years, but this is not just about sports alone. This should be practised anywhere as long as you have young kids being mentored, he said. “This goes beyond sports – it can happen to anybody.”

Creating a safer environment for athletes will be a long and arduous process, but the rewards will be fruitful.

“Given the resources we have now, there are girls who can have a better career than I did,” said Lim. “I really see a lot of potential in the programme, if everything goes right.”