Female swimmers need to feel safe

British Swimming’s Summer Championships made it into the mainstream media in July. Not because of the performances of any swimmers despite the fact that Imogen Clark’s 50m breaststroke time would have made finals in world aquatics in Japan. Instead, the pinnacle of a competitive development pathway was reported in mainstream media because of a now-common controversy. The achievements of swimmers – each of them having placed in the top 24 in their age group for each event – were ignored because a male official calling himself Anne Coombes had complained about being given the gender neutral changing room key at a Sheffield hotel despite presenting in women’s clothing.

It comes less than a week after Ms Coombes (pictured) sparked a furious row with critics including Sharron Davies after she alleged a member of staff at the Mercure Hotel in Sheffield had 'assumed' she wanted to use the unisex changing facilities

Initially, it appeared to be yet another report of a man expecting access to female changing areas because of the way he was dressed.

However, as the story progressed, it became apparent that Anne Coombes was in Sheffield to officiate –  meaning he was expected to ensure that swimmers were keeping to exacting requirements of stroke/turn rules while competing. At this point, the nature of the complaint became concerning. If Anne couldn’t respect women and girls privacy in a hotel changing room, and was prepared to share this on social media, then what was his behaviour like as an official?

Further reports on Mumsnet were picked up by the Daily Mail indicated he was accessing the female changing rooms at Ponds Forge.

My swimmer and I were due to attend for relays when this story broke. I was unfamiliar with the set up because parents are discouraged from accessing changing areas with the competitors. Officials undergo safeguarding training. Sharing areas with swimmers when they might be in a state of undress is discouraged as a protective factor against accusations of impropriety, and also affords swimmers dignity and privacy.

Mainstream news has given the impression that as parents and swimmers our unease is specific to Anne Coombes and his behaviour. This is frustrating because our concerns are not about individuals but about a safeguarding policy failure that should have been addressed earlier.

Officials should never be in changing areas with swimmers. If they have been given expenses to stay at local hotels, they can change there, rather than alongside athletes. If there are other ways of getting poolside without passing through changing areas, then these should be used.

As the parent of a swimmer, but not myself an official, I am aware that a number of officials themselves have children competing and I am grateful to all those volunteers who take on those roles so that swimmers’ times count for rankings, since this leads towards swimmers being chosen for squads and national/international events.

I myself complained to the safeguarding lead at British swimming who has advised me that he would contact the director of events. I am assuming other parents have also complained about Anne’s presence in the changing rooms, given that British Swimming has made a statement on the issue.

But my reflection is that personally, I had delayed my complaint against Anne Coombes, concerned that I could be seen as transphobic for raising a safeguarding concern. I was also worried that raising the issue would impact on my swimmer, who had worked so hard to get to this level of competition.

This atmosphere of fear can’t be healthy for ensuring swimmers’ safety and may prove to be an unnecessary distraction which affects their performance on the day.