by Bernard Lagat

I’ve been in athletics for most of my life, in many different roles. From the track to the roads. From the young athlete I was starting out to the five-time Olympian I became. I’ve been involved as a father, a brother, and, more recently, as a college coach. Since 2019, I’ve also sat on the World Athletics Athletes’ Commission, representing the athletes’ voice on the global stage.

Over the past year, I’ve been part of a Working Group on safeguarding in athletics, to provide input as a representative of the Athletes’ Commission. At the start of November, we reached a milestone with World Athletics launching its Safeguarding Policy.

When we set out working on this document, the end goal was to create a safe and welcoming environment across all levels of the sport, one in which everyone involved is respected, valued, and protected. 

“Safeguarding” is often used as a buzzword in the context of sport. A box to tick. And often the first thing people think about when they hear the term is to protect children. While this of course plays an important role, safeguarding is far more than that. It is ensuring that everyone involved – no matter their age, gender, or status – is protected from abuse, exploitation, and harassment.

As a parent and coach, I want my children and the students I work with to be able to enjoy what they’re doing. And equally, as an athlete, no matter your status, you want to be in a safe space when you’re participating in athletics. Because when you don’t have to worry about your environment, you can concentrate on what you want to achieve.

Many people get into athletics without the intention of making it to the Olympics. They don't want to become world champions, but they do want to enjoy the sport. If I enjoy running, jumping, throwing, or walking, I want to be with a coach that’s going to be coaching me to the best of my abilities. I don't want to be worried about a coach who could be checking me out, who is too focused on my body composition, or playing power games. As an athlete, you want to have faith in the people leading you.

Bernard Lagat Quote on Safeguarding (Getty Images)

For World Athletics to be taking the steps they’re taking with regards to embedding safeguarding further in their work with Member Federations and Area Associations is vitally important. It is about recognizing that these issues are as real in our sport as they are in wider society and that just because it hasn’t necessarily happened to you, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening to somebody else.

There are people who abuse their position and their power. We have them in our sport. We have to recognize that, and we have to be truthful and open about what is out there. There are athletes who don't feel safe. They're being manipulated. They're being exploited. They're being abused. And we as a sport can’t let these people down.

In order for us to help those most vulnerable, they need to know when something isn’t right. And they need to know where and who to turn to.

Bernard Lagat and his children at the 2016 Olympic Trials (Getty Images)

This is now a critical point in the next stage of implementing the Safeguarding Policy. The development, writing, and approval process – you could say the administrative phase – was the first step. Further consultation with and education of athletes is the next phase.

On one hand, it is the “listen, we have a Safeguarding Policy, there are procedures in place to protect you” conversation. But on the other hand, we need athlete feedback on the guidelines and starter pack documents that World Athletics is developing for federations to implement.

Athletes need to know their rights, the reporting stages, and if something has happened, they need to know the consequences. And equally, federations need to be educated on the importance of protecting their athletes – not just the elite but those athletes just starting their journey. We know some federations have taken great strides in safeguarding matters, while others have barely started the journey.

As the Athletes’ Commission, it is our duty to encourage and empower athletes to speak up. Those of us with a platform have to support athletes who have experienced abuse, exploitation, or harassment by speaking out – whether that’s by sharing our own experiences, or by lending our voices to those who have a story to share.

Our words are impactful, and every single time someone with a powerful profile lends their voice to a difficult subject, it encourages others to speak out. And the more people who come forward and support the advancement of safeguarding in their countries, clubs, and communities, the more we do to make our sport a safer space for future generations. 

Because if we cannot protect our people from abuse – physical, emotional, or sexual – we cannot grow our sport.