Scottish runner Mhairi Maclennan opens up on her ordeal in bringing abusive coach to justice

This is a narrative about ache, worry and abuse. It’s the story that might, tragically, be instructed of many ladies in sport, entangled in an internet of manipulation and sexual misconduct, the place behaviours are normalised and appalling acts are brushed below the carpet. But, most significantly, it’s a narrative a few younger lady discovering the power to come ahead and publicly discuss her ordeal in order that others could also be protected in the long run.

Mhairi Maclennan, a proficient runner for Great Britain, was abused by John Lees, an athletics coach she skilled below in Edinburgh.

The abuse concerned touching her inappropriately throughout sport massages, and inappropriate feedback of a sexualised nature. Sadly, she wasn’t the one one who suffered at his palms, although Maclennan is the one one who has waived her anonymity to converse out on the matter.

An preliminary investigation in opposition to Lees led to him being banned from the game for 5 years, however he launched proceedings in opposition to UK Athletics to attraction in opposition to this. In November, the case drew to its conclusion and it didn’t go in his favour.

An unbiased attraction committee discovered him responsible of 5 fees relating to his misconduct in the direction of athletes. He was discovered to have dedicated breaches of his UKA teaching licence by massaging an athlete who was below 18 and abusing her by repeatedly touching her inappropriately; making a sexualised remark to a feminine athlete whereas stretching her decrease physique, inflicting her worry and alarm; massaging the identical athlete and touching her inappropriately; inflicting damage to an athlete by administering a chiropractic adjustment, endangering her security; and offering chiropractic changes to athletes whereas not being appropriately certified to achieve this.

He admitted to two additional fees of massaging the athlete aged below 18 at his residence tackle, and making inappropriate and sexualised feedback to athletes in his coaching group.

Mhairi Maclennan has opened up on her ‘horrific’ ordeal in bringing John Lees to justice

Lees was subsequently banned from teaching for all times.

In the wake of the ordeal, Maclennan co-founded the marketing campaign group Kyniska Advocacy, which advocates for lifetime bans in sexual abuse circumstances.

And talking solely to Sportsmail, she particulars the ‘horrific’ toll of bringing Lees to justice: ‘I wouldn’t want it on my worst enemy,’ says the 26-year-old.

‘It’s exhausting and testing. Unfortunately for the time being, the best way the system works, it’s type of an pointless evil that you’ve to undergo for those who’ve been a sufferer.

‘Maybe at some point in the future the system will work differently and the victim will not have to go through that process. It has been incredibly difficult.

‘I’m nonetheless in remedy and see a psychologist as soon as every week to do quite a lot of trauma work. I’ve been in remedy for a very long time.’

The athlete, from Inverness, says the abuse didn’t begin instantly, when she moved to Edinburgh at 18-years-old to examine Spanish and English Literature at Edinburgh University and be part of a brand new teaching set-up. But she was quickly questioning Lees’ behaviour.

‘Obviously the behaviour was completely different from what I was used to with my former coach at home,’ she explains. ‘I did ask other girls in the group about it, but by the time you ask them — “is this normal?” — it is. It’s like: “Yeah, it’s fine, he’s a great guy”.

The 26-year-old waived her anonymity to reveal she had been abused by her former coach, who final month was handed a lifetime ban from athletics

‘These girls are faster than you and you look up to them and aspire to be like them. And it’s completely not placing the onus on them, it’s an entire tradition of compliance and cover-up and so they have been victims as a lot as anybody else was.’

Maclennan got here ahead with two different women in August 2020 to report Lees. She was instructed to write a press release — by way of e-mail — detailing what had occurred to her, and was requested to ship it to the welfare officer at Scottish Athletics.

‘It was difficult,’ she admits. ‘I was trying to summarise a six-year athlete-coach relationship, most of which was inappropriate, in an email.

‘I remember feeling very in the dark and not knowing where to start. I now know from having gone through therapy and speaking to professionals and understanding exactly what constitutes abuse, that there’s quite a lot of issues I didn’t embrace in that assertion, as a result of I believed they have been regular. Because the surroundings was normalised.’

Maclellan remembers the abusive surroundings below Lees (pictured) being ‘normalised’ 

It was, she says, the ‘scariest thing’ she had ever executed. What she didn’t count on, nevertheless, was the guilt and blame that she started to really feel after reporting the incidents final year.

‘I didn’t come ahead on my very own,’ she attests. ‘There were two others who came forward at the same time as me, and a big part of why I did so was because of those other girls.

‘I had been meaning to for a long time but they approached me as they thought I would know how to come forward about something like this. And I didn’t. I used to be very embarrassed about that, as a result of I used to be older and I felt like I ought to have taken extra duty and I felt responsible that I had been a bystander.

‘So although I was a victim as well, I feel like I had my part to play in turning a blind eye and being inactive. Having suffered it, I knew what was going on, and I have a bit of blame to play in that too.

‘People will have different opinions about that; people will say I don’t have any blame — however I felt accountable and do now, that I didn’t do one thing sooner. I used to be in a position to achieve this, however I nonetheless didn’t.’

Failing to report problems with abuse in sport, nevertheless, is commonplace. The US Center for SafeSport not too long ago carried out a survey of practically 4,000 US athletes throughout 50 sports activities, and an unimaginable 93 per cent of respondents who skilled harassment or undesirable contact didn’t report it. There are many the explanation why that is the case: worry, disgrace, embarrassment are a couple of. Most regarding, nevertheless, is the acknowledgement that in many settings — and in athletics in specific — many behaviours are normalised in such a manner that they virtually turn into an accepted lifestyle. It’s in this ‘culture of compliance’ that points are perpetuated.

She additionally says that she regrets not coming ahead sooner and remembers ‘feeling in the darkish’ as to how to come ahead

‘It’s endemic,’ says Maclennan. ‘It’s an enormous, enormous difficulty in sport due to the best way it really works as a sector. Quite typically, issues may change for the performance-sector arms of sport, however it would take years earlier than it’s mirrored at grassroots degree.

‘I don’t need to paint the image that each coach is an abuser as a result of that’s not the case. There are some great coaches on the market, nevertheless it stays a problem as a result of behaviours have been normalised that aren’t acceptable.’

It is not only the shortage of motion among the many athletics group that has been highlighted in this case. A lightweight has additionally been shone on governing our bodies round problems with safeguarding. Maclennan has been instrumental in making an attempt to change their method. When Lees was initially banned for 5 years, the athlete joined Welsh runner Kate Seary in penning an open letter to then UK Athletics CEO Joanna Coates, calling for lifetime bans for abusers. 

They advocated for a zero-tolerance coverage concerning abuse in the direction of athletes, insisting that ‘it is concerning that some coaches are still only being given temporary or restricted bans’ and, particularly, when it got here to bodily or sexual misconduct in the direction of athletes ‘if any coach is found to have broken the coach Licence Terms and Conditions regarding abuse of this nature’, their licence ought to be completely revoked. The open petition acquired 1000’s of signatures from world wide.

Coates, too, gave her backing to the decision for a everlasting ban. She started to instigate a interval of change inside the organisation, with the UK Athletics board committing to undertake a zero-tolerance method and asking for the utmost ban the place the case merited it.

Maclennan says that the method is ‘exhausting and testing’ and an ‘pointless evil’ for victims to undergo

Other modifications included enhancing the format of the web site to make safeguarding info and reporting simpler to discover, updating baby insurance policies and creating a brand new safeguarding crew with the appointment of two new officers.

She was additionally behind the drive to meet authorities officers, requesting that every one controlling abuse turns into an offence by legislation — whether or not on kids or on adults.

Coates’ resignation after 19 months in cost was due to this fact each a shock and a disappointment to many in the trade who believed that she was important to retaining safeguarding in the highlight. Sportsmail understands she resigned due to ongoing frustrations in making an attempt to impact change.

As for Maclennan, she credit the previous CEO with making an attempt to tackle the issue head-on, and instructed Sportsmail her sudden departure from the governing physique is ‘heartbreaking’.

She believes that change being applied by Coates throughout her time at UKA was essential to enhancing safeguarding and well-being procedures for athletes, and has warned there’s a hazard of not solely ‘taking steps backwards’, however halting the progress she started whereas on the helm.

According to Maclennan, the previous chief made it ‘her legacy to change the safeguarding procedures and welfare teams within athletics’, which the Scot believes has too lengthy been measured by medals and success.

‘We finally had a woman at the helm, which is an enormous feat in this day and age where we have such a small percentage of women in leadership roles,’ she says.

‘I think it’s not essentially being recognised, the work she was doing in phrases of defending the well-being and security of athletes. We want to change our tradition round “success at all costs” and prioritise athlete well-being and security across the sport. I consider that’s what she was doing.

‘It’s a loss for the game, for the organisation and for wider UK sports activities in basic. It’s additionally damaging to the mission of Kyniska to have one sport that was main and making change after which the particular person instigating that change now not being in that position.’

Maclennan feels there may be now, nevertheless, at the very least an urge for food for change extra broadly inside athletics.

‘People are recognising the power that an athlete voice has and they’re recognising athlete’s rights and duties,’ she says. ‘The sport is beginning to be more receptive to those kind of conversations.’

Maclennan hopes now that the lifetime ban for Lees will see constructive change proceed. Since first reporting to Scottish Athletics, the methods there have already been altered. Rather than detailing abuse by way of e-mail, athletes can now discuss to somebody in a secure house, earlier than any offence has even taken place. Any trace of inappropriate behaviour will be mentioned and brought significantly, in the struggle to sort out abuse.

‘It feels like a weight lifted off my shoulders,’ she admits. ‘Hopefully this will set a precedent that lifetime bans are the only sanction that should be in place for sexual misconduct and abuse of athletes and hopefully it sends a message that athletes’ safety is on the coronary heart of what UK Athletics does.

‘UK Athletics have a responsibility to continue that work and that legacy that Jo Coates started, and I know that from our part at Kyniska Advocacy, we will continue to check that athletes’ rights and security are on the coronary heart of that organisation.’

Exit mobile version