Athletics News

The human cost of athlete abuse

The human cost of athlete abuse

A new campaign from Kyniska Advocacy is aiming to shine a light on the longer-term impacts of mistreatment and how individuals need far greater support in being able to move on from traumatic experiences

It doesn’t just stop. There is no automatic or obvious finish line. For athletes who have been through the trauma of abuse, the physical and emotional ripple effects can spread far and wide.

Someone who knows this all too well is Mhairi Maclennan. The British international was one of a number of athletes who were sexually abused by John Lees, whose coaching licence was revoked in 2021 after he was found guilty on five charges by an independent appeal committee and admitted two others.

Though the case is now closed, Maclennan admits its impacts are still very much being felt. As she puts it, someone who is subjected to such an ordeal tends to respond in one of two ways – either by going off the rails entirely or “strapping themselves on to the rails”.

The latter choice comes about because that sensation of having no control in one aspect of life – in this case a period abuse – drives the athlete to focus on controlling what they can to the Nth degree and, as Maclennan says: “Becoming obsessive about living a very rigid lifestyle.” 

The 28-year-old took that path. As a result she developed “neurotic behaviour”, disordered eating and it was only relatively recently that she was able to make the correlation between her past experiences and repeatedly being laid low by chest infections in recent years. She describes having had “only” one this year as being a real sign of progress.

At the root of it all was the abuse she suffered and it’s these wider implications that are the focus of a new campaign being launched by Kyniska Advocacy, the safe sport campaign group co-founded two years ago by Maclennan and fellow athlete Kate Seary.

The aim is to raise awareness of the fact that all isn’t suddenly fine once a verdict is reached or a decision is made – and that athletes who go through these experiences need much greater, better longer-term support. 

Mhairi Maclennan (Mark Shearman)

“In the past few years there’s been an increased awareness globally and nationally about abuse in sport, abusive coaches, unhealthy training environments and more athletes have been speaking up,” says Maclennan.

“It’s been great to see that but we also want to talk about the bigger picture and to give more context of what that whole…

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