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Athletics: Inverness athlete Mhairi Maclennan spearheads campaign to have abusers banned from sport for life

Mhairi MacLennan.
Mhairi MacLennan.

Mhairi Maclennan, of Inverness Harriers, has joined forces with two athletics colleagues to promote a campaign seeking lifetime bans for coaches found guilty of physical or sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse.

The Great Britain cross-country team member, along with Edinburgh pole vaulter Anna Gordon and Welsh international middle-distance runner Kate Seary, are urging UK Athletics to take a stronger stance against offenders, some of whom are free to return to the sport after serving temporary bans.

Maclennan, Gordon and Seary have sent an open letter to UK Athletics CEO Joanna Coates urging the governing body to adopt a stronger zero-tolerance approach to abuse.

The initiative has received widespread support from across the athletic community, with more than 200 signatories adding their names to the letter so far.

The letter to Coates says: “We are writing to you on behalf of the athletics community across the UK who deserve to be safe and protected whilst enjoying the sport that they love.

“Recent events have highlighted that some coaches who have broken the conditions of their coaching licence – specifically in the context of physical or sexual misconduct, harassment or abuse – will be eligible for reinstatement after temporary bans.

“The potential risks of this policy are obvious, and to protect the safety of all athletes we feel these cases cannot be resolved using arbitrary decisions that consider any professional future for these coaches.”

It continues: “It is positive that UK Athletics is entitled to withdraw a coaching licence at any time for any breach of condition 6.1 of the coach licence terms and conditions.

“However, it is concerning some coaches are still only being given temporary or restricted bans.

“We feel anything less than a full and permanent ban is unacceptable in cases of physical or sexual misconduct, harassment or abuse.

“We therefore call for a zero-tolerance policy regarding any physical or sexual misconduct towards athletes in our sport.

“If any coach is found to have broken the coach licence terms and conditions regarding abuse of this nature, we believe their licence should be permanently revoked.

“We want an end to short-term or restricted bans and a move to consistent, transparent rulings with the welfare of athletes at the heart of decisions.”

Among those to have expressed support for the contents of the letter are Great Britain sprints international Alisha Rees (Banchory Stonehaven AC), Scotland cross-country international Sean Chalmers (Inverness Harriers) and Scotland’s development coach of the year Ross Cairns (Inverness Harriers).

There has also been backing from overseas with multiple Olympic and world championship gold medallist Tianna Bartoletta heading a list of prominent American athletes to have added their signatures to the letter.

US Olympic gold medallist Tianna Bartoletta has backed the campaign.

UK Athletics respond to open letter

UK Athletics has issued a statement in response to the letter written by Inverness Harriers athlete Mhairi Maclennan and others for tougher sanctions to be imposed on coaches found guilty of abuse.

The sport’s governing body said: “Physical or sexual abuse is obviously very serious, contrary to our regulations and codes and we would investigate anything raised with us fully and ultimately take it to a hearing.

“These are also likely to involve criminal law offences and we raise with and work with police and other relevant agencies.

“However, the application of permanent sanctions such as lifetime bans can be susceptible to strong and robust legal challenge. Whilst time-specific bans mean in theory an individual can reapply for a licence at a future date, the sport then can review whether or not to permit them to re-enter the sport.

“We understand the concerns highlighted with the petition. We are committed to making our sport safe and urge anyone to come forward to us with any issues on safeguarding@uka.org.uk.”

Maclennan, and her colleagues Anna Gordon and Kate Seary, said: “We have written this letter to ensure athletes now and in the future are safe doing their sport. We believe athlete welfare should be the priority of UK Athletics and a zero-tolerance policy would be a step towards this.

“We are incredibly humbled by the support we have had so far and thank those who have reached out with their kind words from the athletics community. We hope this can make a difference to the lives of all athletes.”

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