Coach & Athlete Relationship – A Tale of Uneven Power and an Unhealthy Imbalance

So many athletes, particularly women, have endured enough.

4 min read
Hindi Female

The relationship between an athlete and the coach is meant to foster excellence and offer protection. Unfortunately, it is an increasingly open secret, that in countless instances, it is molded as predator and prey. A top Indian cyclist, the only woman on an elite team sent for training in Slovenia is back home healing, after an alleged incident of sexual abuse by the former national coach RK Sharma.

While the context of this article is the broader problem of abuse, specifically in sport, it is important to appreciate the widespread nature of this malaise in society. Unfortunately, much of it is not spoken about, often enough or loud enough.

As in other spheres of life, abuse tends to persist behind an unwritten Omerta seeking to protect the powerful. In India, this is particularly true across various facets of life, including sport, politics, arts and business.


The incident in the cycling team has brought to the surface a lingering issue in Indian sport. We have seen abuse reported across sports such as sailing, cricket, table tennis and wrestling at various times. The plight of the elite cyclist, who was forced to return home followed by the entire team, lay bare some festering wounds.

Abuse in sport is a universal phenomenon, an expression of power, in an inherently uneven relationship between administrators, coaches and athletes.

Deborah Herold, one of India’s preeminent cycling champions, has added her voice to share her experiences of toxicity and abuse at the hands of Sharma and his assistant Gautamani Devi. That adds an interesting layer to this debate about the nature of the situation.

While gender remains a particularly significant dimension of this narrative, the alliance between Devi and Sharma underlines the true nature of the beast. Without qualifying the misogyny associated with the abuse of female athletes, it is important to acknowledge the multi-layered chemistry of these incidents. Coaches in this case, and those in power elsewhere, indulge in potentially criminal behaviour mainly as an expression of power.

One should also hope and contend that the chief national coach, Sharma, has received an opportunity to express his side of the story. The Sports Authority of India has acted swiftly to throw a blanket of comfort around the leading national cyclist. You must hope that their action is a direct result of conversations with both parties in a controlled environment.

First, though, credit to the athlete for standing up to the situation. She did well to muster the courage needed to reach out to SAI from their training base in Slovenia. It is hard enough for children to convince their parents to support a career in sport, especially those from marginalised backgrounds.

The recent incident in Slovenia is a reminder of why it is incredibly hard for children to pursue their dreams under the perceived threats to their safety and well-being.

Credit is also due to the SAI officials for acting swiftly in this case. First, by flying her home inside 48 hours and then by concluding their review to initiate action against the coach. Assuming that he is guilty as charged, SAI deserves credit for not dragging its feet over this important matter.

One must also welcome the measures announced by SAI to increase the number of women coaches, awareness and sensitisation of stakeholders and introduction of a compliance officer at camps in India and overseas. However, achieving gender balance and closer monitoring is only half the battle.


Open Channels and Breaking the Omerta

As several sociological scholars have pointed out, signs of abuse tend to dissolve into the shadows, disclosure remains one of the most effective tools for detection. Hence, SAI needs to continue expanding on these initiatives to design and implement reporting systems that protect the parties affected by such incidents.

This will allow for detection of incidences and an adequate window for a thorough investigation without dragging either the athlete or the coach into the mud, even before facts are ascertained.

Returning to the question of uneven power, the interdependent nature of relationships around sport and the hierarchical structures established in these groups lend themselves to a subservient attitude of fear and false obedience.

Further, the power of coaches and administrators in matters such as selection and distribution of benefits tilts the scales in favour of the perpetrators of abuse, often in return for promises of security and success.

A 2016 academic study by Margo Mountjoy observed that physical and psychological abuse can get normalized among groups of individuals associated with sport.

Several other scholars have also noted that survivors tend to experience feelings of guilt and shame, often blaming themselves for abusive experiences.

Another challenge is the defensive tendency to trivialize the suffering of survivors, or even blaming them for their pain. Even worse, we have observed on several occasions how the credibility of survivors could be questioned to damage prospects of healing and justice. The barriers are tall, and behaviours may not even reach any significant humane height.

In a country like India, where a wave of skepticism surrounds an average career in sport, athletes leave home with a tremendous burden of performance on their minds and bodies.

Alone in the company of adults, with the power to dictate their future, they tend to live under a cloak of vulnerability, as they battle to surpass expectations and aspirations.

Those that prey and the ones that suffer can be served right with a dignified and responsible approach from the media, police and judicial systems. Hiding evil behind silken curtains or studied silence only tends to embolden the criminal and expose the vulnerable ever more to this evil behaviour.

So many athletes, particularly women, have endured enough. We need collective and comprehensive action to protect them in an environment of respect and safety. That includes a sensitive society, well organized federations, professionalism across the spectrum of stakeholders, awareness, reporting procedures, careful monitoring, swift investigation and stern action.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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