SA athletes team up to fight child abuse in sport
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There isn’t a day that goes by where Olivia Jasriel doesn’t relive being sexually abused by world-renowned tennis coach Bob Hewitt, even 39 years later.
She was 12 years old when she was raped and sexually assaulted by Hewitt.
Now 50, she still has flashbacks.
“My biggest and most devastating trigger I have is the smell of a sweaty man,” she said. “It sneaks up on me every time I am on the tennis court and it causes a reaction of some sort.”
Jasriel was on her way to becoming a top tennis player when Hewitt abused her. He is now a convicted rapist.
The abuse took an emotional and physical toll and derailed any hope of her becoming a professional player.
“As a player who was always at least in the top three in the country and who, at one point, was number seven in the USA in college tennis, I most certainly had a future.
“The abuse impacted me more emotionally than physically, to the point where I became repulsed by tennis. I could not even watch it on TV.
“I have struggled all my life with depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders and terrible abandonment and rejection issues. I’ve struggled with relationships but, with a lot of hard work and perseverance, this is all becoming much easier.”
It took Jasriel several years to gain the courage to speak out. And her bravery later led to Hewitt’s arrest, conviction and sentence of six years in jail.
But the elderly tennis coach served only three years before being released on parole.
“Hewitt did tell me that nobody would believe me. I was afraid, yes, because as a little girl I did not want this very big, present man to get into trouble. It took me about two weeks before I did try to speak about it. And when I was shut down I never really spoke about it again until I was about 18 or 19. I was so afraid.”
Speaking out about her abuse did come at a cost.
“It cost me my family, my employment and I lost contact with my son for about eight years. It cost me more than money.”
But Jasriel’s courage eventually led to justice being served.
Since then, she has made it her life’s work to expose and fight child abuse in South Africa.
Aside from working with victims of child abuse in her own capacity, she is one of the driving forces behind the launch of Women and Men’s Athletes Against Child Abuse (WMACA) in South Africa.
A first in South Africa, it offers safeguarding, monitoring and seeking accountability for the children of South Africa who have been or may be impacted by abuse in sport.
Reports of child abuse in sport in the country over the past few years have been on the rise.
Most recently, a prominent SA swimming coach was accused of sexually assaulting girls as young as 10 from the time he was 13.
Two women, who are now in their fifties, have opened a case of sexual assault at Pinetown police station in Durban.
The WMACA is currently working on eight cases of child abuse in sport.
The new division has also been endorsed and backed by sports stars including Springbok rugby player Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, former Bafana Bafana star Benni McCarthy, former Olympic champion swimmer Penny Heyns, Midmar Mile winner Robyn Kinghorn and female Springbok rugby star Babalwa Latsha.
“It’s taken me about three years of research to identify the gap in protection of children in sport, not just in South Africa but worldwide. I always knew there was a problem, I guess I was too busy with my own story to see the enormity of the problem.”
“Sport is very easy access for predators and because of the nature of teaching a sport, body contact is a very grey area in terms of what is right and wrong.”
Jasriel knows they face a huge task, but hopes they can make sports a safe space for children.
“I am not going to take this challenge lightly. We would like to see proper reporting structures, policies and procedures around abuse being implemented by all the federations and sporting bodies. Participating in sport should not be a traumatic experience. It should be a time for personal growth and achievement.”
Jasriel said the WMACA planned to provide a safe space for children to speak out.
“If we don’t speak about our abuse, the coaches and teachers will continue to do what they do. I know it takes a huge amount of courage, but with our knowledge and expertise, we can help you overcome what has happened and do our best to stop it from happening to others.”
WMACA’s head of advocacy, Luke Lamprecht, said before its launch, there had been no system in place to investigate child abuse in sport.
“We recognise that sport poses particular risks for abuse and that young people are at risk of abuse, particularly by coaches.
“The reason for that is that coaches often choose jobs that give them access to children to abuse them. So, we are primarily focused on sport. We also want to highlight the fact that there are no necessary systems in place to investigate and manage when there are allegations of abuse in sport.“
Lamprecht said two pieces of legislation were relevant.
“The first is the Sexual Offences Act. Section 54 says any person who knows a child who's been sexually abused must report it to the police immediately.
“Second, Section 110 of the Children’s Act, which names certain professionals like teachers, educators , principles and so on, says that if the case is not reported, they must report it to the Department of Social Development who will then liaise with the police. This includes more than just sexual abuse, it includes deliberate neglect and physical abuse.
“The most important thing is for the child to tell a trusted adult, because the big issue is that, when it comes to reporting these cases in terms of the legislation, there needs to be an adult who is a duty bearer in terms of the right of child to protection, and that adult needs to assist with facilitating that process because often, when children do it on their own, they do not get access,” said Lamprecht
Athletes speak out
Benni McCarthy, former Bafana Bafana star and manager of Amazulu Football Club:
Sexual abuse in schools has been covered up for too long and no one seems to be taking it seriously. Children in sport are vulnerable and we must protect them. It is important we listen to our children and athletes and protect them as much as possible. As a father and also as a coach, it’s important for me to support this initiative.
As parents we hand over responsibility for our children to coaches without hesitating. We need to ensure children are safeguarded in their custody. We need to take extra care, listen to our children and talk to them and explain what are the signs to look out for , what is off-limit when it comes to sexual abuse . It is important that we protect our children as much as possible.
Penny Heyns, swimmer and Olympic medallist:
As a former swimmer and a co-founder of Sports Voice, an initiative with its focus being athlete safeguarding, this is why I support Women and Men Athletes against Child Abuse. I would like to thank them for trying to raise awareness of this issue. I believe that every single child and athlete needs to have access to a safe environment, both for training and for competition, in order to develop their full potential.
Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira, former Springbok rugby player and World Cup winner:
For me, as an athlete and as a parent of two beautiful children that fully participate in sport, it was important for me to support this initiative and use my platform to raise awareness among parents and children about sexual abuse.
I strongly believe that the sporting environment around them needs to be safe, healthy and free from any discrimination and any form of violence. We, therefore, need to create awareness as much as possible among parents about what is happening in schools and sport.
Robyn Kinghorn, Midmar mile winner 2020 – FINA world open water championship:
As an athlete, I believe it's so important for us to stand up and speak about the abuse that is taking place in sport.
I would like to thank them for giving us, athletes, the opportunity to use our voices in raising the awareness around abuse in sport.