Since winning a silver medal in the 400-meter individual medley at the 1996 Summer Olympics, Allison Wagner has left a long wake as an advocate for fairness and safety in sport. Allison spoke with us recently about her priorities as a SafeSport Athlete Advisory Team member, and her own experiences and perspectives as an elite swimmer and as a scholar and professional in sport integrity.
VOICE OF A CHAMPION:
WE ASKED ALLISON:
Of all your experiences in swimming and throughout sport, what stands out as most memorable or important?
Wagner: I really loved racing, and the standard of resilience and hard work I established for myself. That’s turned out to be really valuable for other areas of my life so far.
You have swam against some competitors known for anti-doping rule violations. I understand you’re now at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Tell us about your current work there?
Wagner: During my athletic career, I raced against some athletes who were doping, and it was frustrating and disheartening to say the least. When watching the Russia doping scandal unfold, I decided to get involved to do what I could to protect clean athletes from experiencing the injustices I experienced.
USADA has consistently demonstrated a dedication to the protection of clean athletes.
What brought you to the SafeSport Athlete Advisory Team and other Center efforts supporting athletes?
Wagner: I had some negative experiences in sport. And I think sports should be an activity and arena in which kids and people can pursue goals, self-development, and learn lessons valuable for any life pursuit—not a place where athletes suffer high costs that too often lead to negative, life-changing developments.
I’ve been studying for a master’s degree in sport ethics and integrity these last two years, and have been able to delve into research on abuse in sport and understand where the world is, in terms of addressing this problem.
I’ve also talked to athletes who’ve experienced abuse in sport, and I think they need more advocates to speak up on their behalf. The SafeSport Athlete Advisory Team is an opportunity to do that. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in how the Center serves athletes, so I applied for a spot.
What can we tell stakeholders about the Athlete Advisory Team’s priorities?
Wagner: My main goal is to represent athletes. Also, to offer feedback to the Center, and question the Center on what athletes are saying they experience, in terms of reporting as well as abuse in sport. And to generally voice concerns.
It’s fair to say we know there are athletes who feel there is more the Center can and should do. What might you want us to know about how we can improve athlete experiences of Center processes?
Wagner: It’s great that the Center is open to feedback and improvement. Generally, there are criticisms and feedback about the process of responding to and resolving abuse reports. I think that change and improvement can happen in a variety of ways within the workings of the Center. One possible idea is to consider involving a counselor whenever there’s interaction between an investigator and survivor. I also think there could be more transparency related to the process and the investigators, in terms of who they are and their background. The bottom line is that there are too many athletes that don’t trust the process: the Center is here to help athletes and help sport, so it’s important that the process works better to protect and serve athlete well-being.
In the Athlete Culture & Climate Survey, we got feedback from many athletes about how we can better serve athletes throughout and beyond the process. What were your impressions of findings from that survey, in terms of any particularly worth highlighting?
Wagner: In general, a lot of findings in the SafeSport survey align with findings I’ve seen elsewhere in my research. One thing that does surprise me, here and in other research I’ve seen, is that I’d think the percentage of athletes experiencing physical harm would be higher: the definition or gauge of that, and how athletes understand it, can vary. [Data from athlete responses can be found on page 20 of this full survey report.]
Have you seen signs of progress? What would you hope to see to feel positive progress is being made?
Wagner: There is progress, in that people are more aware and understanding the problem of abuse in sport, especially as it pertains to sexual abuse and harassment: that’s one step toward change. In addition, there are resources being allocated to this issue, especially in the U.S., and there needs to be more resources allocated internationally.
What are your hopes for what will happen as a result of your academic or professional work?
Wagner: Generally, I aim to advocate for the protection of athletes from all sorts of injustices. In my work with USADA, I’m dedicated to protecting athletes from an unfair playing field. We have work to do as a national and global sport community to create a field of fair play and evaluate what’s working (and not working) in terms of protecting and serving athletes.
Anything else you’d like athletes to know?
Wagner: That they have someone on the Athlete Advisory Team to represent their concerns. I can be reached at allisonwagner.com. I also recently finished my thesis work, which was focused on the importance of identifying risk factors for abuse and harassment in sport, and I’m happy to discuss that work with athletes as well. I’m happy to talk to anyone with concerns, or who’d like to talk about the subject of abuse and harassment in sport.
I understand you were a founding member of the Art of the Olympians program? How does your swimming inform the way you see your art?
Wagner: I’ve always enjoyed creating and appreciating art. For me, sport and art are similar, as ways to express myself. That’s why I love Art of the Olympians, which is all about the pursuit of excellence captured in the Olympic spirit as expressed through sport and art. I’ve enjoyed painting water and swimming-related pieces, just because I love the water, and it’s really aesthetically appealing to me to depict and paint. After I finish my master’s degree, I’m hoping to have a little downtime so I can get back to some of that!