As Chair of World Rowing’s Athletes Commission, Lenka Dienstbach-Wech led an initiative to get a safeguarding policy and procedures embedded in the organisation.

She is now a member of the Athletes’ Declaration Steering Committee, and believes the role of athletes’ commissions is key in empowering athletes to speak up.

Find out more about the steps the IOC and Athlete365 have been taking to create a safer sporting environment.

I think the Athletes’ Commission plays a central part as a link between the athlete community and the International Federation (IF) or the National Federation (NF).

In my experience, it can be really difficult as an athlete to come forward to your IF, or to your NF, because sometimes there is a big gap. You don’t know those people very well; they are sometimes much older and may not have been an athlete themselves. It can be difficult to turn to someone like that, and it’s much easier to turn to your Athletes’ Commission, because these are your fellow athletes and peers. You know them, you respect them and you trust them.

So, athletes’ commissions and athlete representation are a really crucial part to help athletes in these delicate and uncomfortable situations. To have a person of trust, I think, is one of the big strengths of an athletes’ commission.



Identifying shortcomings

During my period as Chair, our Athletes’ Commission was the driving force to create a safeguarding policy and procedures in World Rowing (FISA).

What really changed my perspective was an incident where an athlete came to FISA to complain about a coach from her NF who verbally and physically abused her at a training camp. She felt she couldn’t do anything about it, so she asked the IF for help. I was on the FISA Council at that time and also on the Executive Committee, and although we handled it in a good way, I felt that we went back to the NF without any proper procedure, and that we were not really prepared for dealing with an issue like that.

What we needed were some guidelines that would help our IF react in an appropriate way, but would also put pressure on NFs to do the work themselves and look out for their athletes.

That was the experience which started my thought process, and from then on I took that to my Athletes’ Commission meetings. And when we started talking about it in that relatively comfortable environment, we discovered very soon that everyone had a story to tell. Everyone had either experienced some kind of harassment or abuse in their own careers, or knew of people who had experienced it.

That was quite shocking to realise, and when you hear it from other nationalities and other systems all over the world, it just becomes so much stronger. And from that it was clear that we needed to do something about it.

Turning ideas into policy

Our Commission prepared the first version of what ultimately became World Rowing’s safeguarding policy, and I was in the working group from the very beginning. From starting the first draft until we had the policy and the procedures ready to be approved by the FISA Council, it was probably a year-and-a-half. At the beginning we thought it would be much quicker, but when you get into the whole material you have to consider legal responsibilities and legal issues, and then the wording has to be appropriate; and then we had to test our procedures.

I think one of the major things that was really a big motor to start the whole discussion and the whole policy planning was that we had the FISA President, Jean-Christophe Rolland, really buying into it. So within the highest position in FISA, we had someone who really believes that this is an issue which needs to be addressed. And I think it shows that the Athletes’ Commission within FISA is very well regarded and respected.

So, in FISA, the process has been very much athlete-driven, and we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved within a relatively short period of time. I hope that it will help and serve as guidance for NFs to adopt and create their own safeguarding policies.

Empowering athletes to speak up

Now, at all FISA events we have a Safeguarding Officer, who is often a member of the Athletes’ Commission, and who is a dedicated person you could go to and talk if you had issues around safeguarding.

As part of our education, we also try to tell athletes that you have to look out for each other, and to support any team-mate who may be a little more vulnerable to harassment and abuse. I think it’s really important that athletes start to talk about this stuff within their sports community, and be brave enough to come forward and say: “I’ve had this situation where I felt really uncomfortable.”

Especially if you’re a well-regarded athlete who has standing as a role model, if you tell young athletes that you have been in uncomfortable situations and had the right to do something about it, then young athletes will feel empowered to come forward and not just put up with what they’re experiencing.

How the Athletes’ Declaration can help 

I think the Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities Declaration is a historic document, because for the first time we’ve summed up the fundamental rights of an athlete, and put them down in a document which is accessible for everyone, where everyone can have a look into it, and where it sets a standard of how we want athletes to be treated around the world. Every sports organisation can now look at that document and compare it to their constitution or their policies, and see whether there is any part which maybe violates an athlete’s rights.

There is a big emphasis on safeguarding in the Athletes’ Declaration because we feel that’s one of the fundamental rights: to have the right to participate in a safe environment, free from harassment and with due respect to everyone regardless of your gender, your race or your sexuality.

The right of an athlete to compete in a safe way is something which I feel in the past has been neglected a little bit, and so with this document we have sent a really strong message that the athlete is at the core of the whole sports environment. I think it can help IFs or even sports clubs by just looking at it and having the guidance of that document for how their rules and their strategies should look.

Find out more about the steps the IOC and Athlete365 have been taking to create a safer sporting environment.