Mhairi Maclennan was 18 years old when she moved to Edinburgh to study, and join a new coaching set up. It was a move that, she says now, “changed the course of my life”.
Under her new coach, John Lees, Maclennan’s distance running was about to step up a gear. But there was one niggling issue. The culture around training, and particularly sports massages, felt uncomfortable.
At first, the Scottish cross-country champion put it to the back of her mind. After all, she was not the only one who had noticed his behaviour, and her running was improving. “Everybody around me would warn me that he had a bit of a reputation of being ‘handsy’,” says Maclennan, now 26. “I’d just met the man five minutes, and all of a sudden I was bending over in front of him and he was checking the alignment of my hips with my body pressed against his. I remember feeling really uncomfortable. But it’s almost like time and time again, those situations don’t lead to anything concrete, so you start trusting more, and then that trust is open to manipulation and abuse.”
A year on, however, an incident occurred which began a worrying pattern. “I was by myself at the track on a Sunday evening [with John] and he was performing a stretch with me, which he called a hurdler stretch. I was on my back, and he was leaning over me, my feet were on his shoulders. He had his hands pressed on my bum, to stretch my lower back. Obviously, it’s a very intimate position, and I always felt uncomfortable with that stretch.
“But that specific time, he said that he was ‘going to come’ and then stepped away. I remember thinking I hadn’t heard him correctly, but he seemed really flustered and was red in the face. I got my stuff and I ran home crying. I didn’t tell anybody what had happened, because I almost didn’t believe that it had.”
Soon after, Lees began asking Maclennan to come to his house for sports massages. During some of these sessions, Maclennan says, he touched her vagina. “When he said, ‘Oh, my hand slipped,’ he’d draw attention to it as if to say he didn’t mean it, to disguise it. But then it keeps happening so you realise this is intentional. I tried to convince myself it was normal, it was OK, because you don’t want to believe you’re being abused.”
Maclennan reported Lees to Scottish Athletics last summer, submitting a statement detailing the alleged abuse as well as what she perceived as his controlling behaviour.
Telegraph Sport has spoken to two other athletes who also reported Lees to the governing body, but wish to remain anonymous. One athlete reported Lees for sexual misconduct, while the other said she found his massages inappropriately focused on the pelvic and hip areas. Both athletes complained of emotional abuse, and overtraining.
Lees’s case was reviewed by UK Athletics and in February he was given a five-year ban from coaching for misconduct, under section 6.1 of UKA’s Coach License Terms and Conditions.
A statement from Lees’s legal representative said, “Mr Lees denies the allegations. Due to serious ill health at the time proceedings were raised, he did not adequately defend himself.” His lawyers went on to claim that UK Athletics acted, “contrary to natural justice when they failed to ensure that there was a degree of adequacy in his defence … It is a matter of fact that there has never been an instance of Mr Lees breaching the interpersonal boundary between athlete and coach.” They added that legal proceedings have commenced against UK Athletics and as such they did not wish to comment any further.
Maclennan’s decision to waive her right to anonymity and tell her story now, comes as part of a wider trend of whistleblowing in sport – a global #MeToo movement of reporting and exposing sexual harassment and abuse.
In April, a year-long effort to uncover sexual violence in sports in France identified more than 400 coaches suspected of abuse or covering it up, while this month over 200 gymnasts in Australia testified that they had suffered sexual abuse, weight-shaming and bullying. The wave of claims stem back to the case of USA national team doctor Larry Nassar who in 2018 was sentenced to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts.
Concerned that Lees could return to coaching after the five-year ban has ended, Maclennan joined Welsh indoor 1500m champion Kate Seary in penning an open letter – signed by 2,000 athletes – to UK Athletics chief executive Joanna Coates calling for lifetime bans for abusers.
Seary’s own experiences relate to her former coach, Phil Banning, a GB runner in his heyday, who was jailed in 2019 for sexually abusing underage athletes in the 1970s and 1980s. She was never abused by Banning herself, but reading about his crimes in the media rocked her world.
Banning had been her coach between the ages of 11 to 18, and someone who she once described as a trusted father figure. “Pretty much everything I learnt about the sport I learned from him,” she says. “I base my knowledge and my success on those years, that’s what built me as an athlete, but suddenly it’s tainted my experience of the sport.” Banning was not employed by Welsh Athletics at the time of the abuse, but he later went on to become a national coach with the governing body.
On Friday, Maclennan and Seary will launch Kyniska Advocacy, a lobbying organisation which aims to protect women in sport through policy changes.
Coates and UKA have been responsive to their call for lifetime bans, recently acquiring funding for a QC-led review of past safeguarding and misconduct cases, with the possibility that previous temporary bans could be made permanent.
UKA say their new approach to safeguarding will be, “based upon risk and not restricted to waiting for formal breaches of rules or regulations. This means safeguarding officers will be empowered to address negative behaviours earlier, a key change that will enable crucial early interventions.”
Currently the published list of banned coaches, which includes Lees, does not specify the nature of their misconduct. Seary and Maclennan are concerned that leaves athletes in the dark. Due to coaches often never having faced criminal charges (in Maclennan’s case, she chose not to report to the police), for many national governing bodies there is a legal barrier to publicly disclosing more information. “People were horrified to think that they quite possibly could be coached by someone who could have had a ban,” Seary says. “When you turn up at a track that should ensure your safety. But it was the realisation that it doesn’t at all.”
For Tric Kearney, that could not ring more true, as one of the survivors of prolific child abuser and former Irish national team swimming coach George Gibney. Kearney was a standout swimming talent in the 1980s, but her coach Gibney raped her daily in a cycle of abuse from which she thought she would never be free.
“I was 13, but there was a level of acceptance there that this was my lot,” she says. “We weren’t in a dungeon but we were effectively captured, away from the life we should have been living.” She took her allegations to the police in the early 1990s, along with a number of others, but Gibney avoided trial in Ireland on 27 counts of indecent assault and unlawful carnal knowledge after the Supreme Court ruled he could not face trial in part because of the time that had elapsed since the alleged offences – allowing the disgraced coach to move out of the country. He currently resides freely in Florida.
Kearney publicly spoke about her experience on the acclaimed BBC podcast ‘Where is George Gibney?’. “With the podcast, I just thought, ‘Oh here we go. Now, another fella who’s going to say how broken my life is and how destroyed I am’,” she says. “Even though people usually say, ‘you’re not a victim you’re a survivor’, they tend to tell the victim story. But we weren’t portrayed as destroyed or victims. So I thought it was brilliant.”
Kearney is hopeful that the same story she and fellow survivors told 30 years ago is now being believed, and with an outpouring of support. “It’s a very Irish thing, but people will literally just walk up to you and go, ‘Tric Kearney? Fair play to ya’ and walk off. It’s lovely. Nobody’s questioning us, everybody’s saying well done, you’re so brave – all the things we would have wanted people to say to us 30 years ago, and they didn’t.”
Still today abuse remains a taboo subject. British swimmer Amber Keegan, 24, says she was sexually assaulted by another athlete as a teenager. She never reported it. “I remember just thinking, “How the hell am I going to explain this?” And so I just didn’t, and I think that is true of so many people.”
Struggling with depression she sought therapy through the NHS and Sporting Minds, and is only now coming to terms with her experience.
As a result, Keegan wants to highlight the dangers of a sports culture that deifies male athletes, even when they face accusations of abuse. “The locker room, lad culture is almost accepted in [sport] in a way that it wouldn’t be accepted in the classroom,” she says. “When there’s no repercussions it sends a signal that it’s OK you can be this insidious person in your personal life and still get to live a life of fame and glory, being hero-worshipped for your athletic abilities.”
Keegan is channelling her experiences into a positive outcome, working with Our Streets Now, a grass-roots campaign to criminalise sexual harassment. It has helped empower her to find her voice, and she is now calling for sports governing bodies to address the toxic culture that enables abusers.
Away from the field of play, abuse can take the form of sexual harassment online. Two-time Paralympic silver medallist Stef Reid says this has been her experience, a sinister approach where her disability becomes the focus of the abuse.
“After losing my leg and becoming an amputee, I’ve always been quite open if people had questions about disability,” says the 36-year-old, who is also the 2017 T44 long jump world champion. “I’ve wanted to help people.
But I was alerted early on to – there’s no other word for it – weird fetishes that can exist.
“There’s a few instances where I was contacted by someone on social media, from the standpoint of ‘I’m a new amputee, can you give me some information’, and then it quickly shifts to weird [questions] like ‘can you send me a photo of your stump?’ There’s absolutely no reason why anybody would need that. But it is known in the amputee community that that kind of thing happens. We’re online together and somebody will alert you saying, ‘If this Twitter handle contacts you, don’t engage’. The weird thing is, it’s that normalised and almost accepted we’ve never actually had the conversation to say, ‘Isn’t this nuts that we’re having a talk about who we need to block because they’re really into stumps?’”
Tellingly, Reid has only ever heard of these experiences for female amputees. “People just feel this huge freedom to comment on female bodies, in a way that you just wouldn’t for a man,” says Reid. “Even in terms of kit, typically women are just given less clothing to wear. In athletics, look at female kit compared to men’s you’re essentially wearing a bikini – OK, a hi-tech bikini – to compete.”
The abuse extends to women working in the sports industry, too. YouTuber Meliza Seballos, who runs a Tottenham Hotspur fan account, and Goal Diggers podcast host Anita Abayomi both encounter sexist and racist harassment online.
Abayomi describes streaming live on YouTube delivering reaction to men’s football results while an onslaught of racist comments and death threats popped up as notifications for all to see. “You’re really angry inside reading them, but you just have to make sure that you don’t fall out of confidence with yourself. Before I’d call out the person live on the stream, and say you just said x, y and z. But it becomes tiring, why am I always having to point out these racist and sexist people?”
Last month, during sport’s social media blackout, Abayomi took to Instagram to highlight the issue as she continued to field horrendous messaging online. “Stinky burnt black b—-” read one message she received. “I’ll cut ur throat out you smelly burnt monkey,” said the next one. “I’ll rape the s— out of you if I find you… Get the f— out of men’s football. It’s the white man’s game not for you.”
She shakes her head. “And this is not even the worst thing that I’ve received in my entire life, and I don’t see my reports followed up,” she says, admitting that she thinks about quitting every time she receives messages like these. “It brings me down. I can’t change myself into a middle-aged white man. I’m a Black woman, what am I supposed to do about that? I’m getting abuse because of who I am.”
For Seballos, who has Filipino heritage, the impact of racist attacks and rape threats has pushed her to fear for the safety of herself and her family.
After she received a series of disturbing threats to her five-year-old daughter she went to the police. “I was getting comments where they were calling her an ape. They were saying they’re going to put sleeping pills in her drink. Make her scream like a slut, molest her,” she says. “I got five messages in one day about my daughter. My mental health has been very roller coaster, very up and down.”
“At football grounds I’ve had a few comments from maybe rival fans that have walked past me, they’ve called me a slag or something. But nowhere near the kind of messages that I get online. It just ties in to the emboldening a lot of people feel behind their screens. I’ve got your usual online troll, I’ve got this anti-Asian stigma on me, and I’m a woman – it’s a triple whammy I’ve been on the end of.”
Seballos says the abuse drove her to a very dark place. “I think I have that thought at least once a week, whether to give up my platform. Along with the YouTube abuse, and other stuff that was going on in my life, there were a few times where suicide was on the cards pretty much. So it was hard.”
All of the women who spoke to Telegraph Sport express a desire to reclaim sport as a safe space. “The narrative around abuse and survival is very poor, and very hopeless,” Kearney says. “Anyone who’s been abused isn’t actually expected to recover, they’ll just be OK, but they won’t be good. It’s different for everyone but I never ever, ever lost sight of the person that I was.”
“In terms of my survival initially I just hoped that I could sleep at night. Then I hoped that we’d get him into court. Then, when we didn’t, I hoped that I’d learnt to live with that. Hope changes all the time. I think it’s a very powerful thing.”