Interview with Gillian Sanders

Interview with Gillian Sander, who participated in a panel on the theme of “Keeping Female Athletes Healthy” at SportAccord.  As a three-time Olympian and lawyer who has navigated the transition from competition to governance, World Sailing Integrity Manager Gillian Sanders is highly qualified to offer a 360-degree perspective on the challenges facing women in sport.

Sanders, who competed in triathlon for South Africa at the London, Rio and Tokyo Games, explored various issues relating to ‘Keeping Female Athletes Healthy’ during HealthAccord – and she is clear about the major obstacles to progress in 2024.

The major health-related issue for women in sport right now is negative body image and the resultant health-related knock-on effects,” Sanders said “Having worked on the UK Sport-funded Sport Integrity pilot project, I can say that the majority of the reports submitted by athletes comprised fat shaming and psychological abuse of female athletes by their coaches.

We know this very often leads to eating disorders or disordered eating and the knock on effects such as RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) which can lead to bone injuries and worse, such as osteoporosis, not to mention the very damaging impact on mental health. There are still pressures on female athletes to look a certain way.

It is important that IFs, National Federations and National Olympic Committees have robust safeguarding policies and procedures in place, including a confidential reporting mechanism so that athletes who may be subject to abuse have the confidence to report abuses.” Sanders stresses the importance of education so that unacceptable behaviour is truly understood, while IFs should also signpost athletes to further support, particularly if they are under-resourced themselves. Furthermore, whilst some IFs have updated maternity policies to include enhanced pregnancy and postpartum support, others are “lagging behind”.

Sanders adds: “It would be great to see maternity policies include more emphasis on the safe return to training and competing, as well as safe spaces for female athletes with babies and those breastfeeding.

On this point, Sanders explains that it is “hugely important” to provide health management support and guidance, not only to elite female athletes, but also to grassroots participants.

Body image plays a massive role in this and research has shown that a large percentage of girls fall out of sport due to negative body image-related reasons,” Sanders says. “We need a robust message to young female athletes that ‘strong is beautiful’. There are some incredible athlete role models out there to look up to instead of the often harmful beauty content shared by social media influencers.

I believe it’s important to instil in young girls sport is cool and fun. This was certainlymy experience. This positive message resonated with me throughout school, leadingto a love and enjoyment of sport.”
Sanders is part of World Sailing’s legal team, leading on safeguarding and antidoping issues. Although she acknowledges that safeguarding has “progressed massively… there is still a lot of work to be done” across the broader sports industry.

Sanders elaborates: “It is seemingly easy for perpetrators to hop countries due to jurisdictional challenges and continue their abuse elsewhere. There is also no global code such as there is in anti-doping. It is up to the country or the sport to have a safeguarding policy and many countries and sports still don’t have anything in place.
Progression wise, after the gymnastics abuse in the USA came to light a few years ago, there was a massive shift – athletes suddenly felt confident to speak up and sports were forced to act.

Anti-doping has made progress, but there is also still work to be done. Blood spot testing is one of the more recent developments – the tests are cheaper and more efficient than blood or urine tests, but they only pick up a limited range of substances. All methods of testing are expensive, and sports have limited budgets.

However, from the viewpoint of somebody who has been there and done it, has there been sufficient change in terms of representation of women in governance?

The landscape is shifting very slowly but probably not quickly enough,” Sanders says. “Some sports are much more progressive than others and some countries are much more progressive than others. Generally speaking, there is still not enough representation by women in senior leadership roles.