Research Update: the Flanders’ approach to physical and sexual integrity of children in sport

Tine Vertommen

Criminologist, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Antwerp University Hospital (UZA) 

Recently, Flanders has taken significant steps towards safeguarding children in sport. In February 2012, the Flemish ministers responsible for Sport, Youth, Education and Welfare signed a commitment statement on the protection of children’s physical and sexual integrity (Vertommen, Tolleneer, Maebe, & De Martelaer, 2014). Since, Flemish sports authorities have taken action on different levels. The Flemish government commissioned a two-year project entitled “ethics in sport” to ICES, the International Center Ethics in Sports (2012-2014) and a consortium of four Flemish universities. The project consisted of policy support for sport organizations with regard to the implementation of prevention policies and instruments, as well as scientific research into four topics in sport ethics.

Flemish policy

A working group of sport federations, sexual health prevention experts and academics developed a policy framework on sexual and physical integrity in sport, consisting of eleven instruments at different policy levels (quality, prevention and reaction) and aiming at different stakeholders in youth sport.

One of the instruments in the framework is the ‘flag system’, an educational tool to assist sport stakeholders in the assessment of sexual behaviour involving children. The flag system is based on six assessment criteria: consent, equality, free will, age appropriateness, context appropriateness and self-respect. Rather than judging right or wrong, it gives a score for the six criteria and a global score (coloured flag from green, over yellow and red, to black) to assess situations in which children’s sexual integrity might be violated. Each flag colour and the corresponding degree of seriousness require an appropriate reaction towards the victim, the perpetrator and potential bystanders. At the moment, ICES and a pool of flag system coaches are delivering workshops all over Flanders to implement the tool (Vertommen, Stoeckel, Vandevivere, Van Den Eede, & De Martelaer, 2014). So far, reactions have been extremely positive as people say the tool is ‘very useful’ in their own practice and ‘has broken the ice and made them think about the issue from a different angle’.

Simultaneously, the new Flemish decree on ‘healthy and ethical sports’ came into force. The decree, highlights the topic of physical and sexual integrity of athletes, together with issues of social integrity and fair play, and encourages sport federations to take responsibility in preventing unwanted behavior and proactively ensuring children’s safety and integrity in sport.


The abovementioned project also consisted of four scientific projects, carried out by four Flemish universities. The University of Ghent surveyed ethical management in local club boards by interviewing relevant stakeholders (athletes, parents, coaches, board members). The Vrije Universiteit Brussels developed a dilemma-based educational workshop to promote prosocial behavior in youth coaches. The Catholic University Leuven listed international good practices in the prevention of sexual harassment and abuse in sport and conducted interviews with young elite athletes on risk factors. The fourth subproject is carried out by Tine Vertommen at the University of Antwerp, and will be presented a bit more in detail here.

Tine is performing a quantitative prevalence study on interpersonal violence against children in sport in Flanders (Belgium) and the Netherlands. In this prevalence study, a representative sample of 4043 Flemish and Dutch adults is retrospectively surveyed about their experiences with psychological, physical and sexual violence while sporting as a child younger than 18 years old.

The questionnaire is based on internationally validated childhood trauma questionnaires and adapted to the specific context of sport. The second research question focuses on the long term consequences of these adverse childhood experiences in later adult life. These will be determined by internationally validated clinical questionnaires on psychopathology (BSI-18 on anxiety, depression and somatic disorders) and quality of life (WHO QOL BREF).

The results of this study will give an insight into the prevalence of psychological, physical and sexual violence in youth sport and the consequences of these experiences in later adult life. The first results are to be published by the end of 2015 in ‘Child Abuse & Neglect – the International Journal’.


ICES is recently appointed as the expert center for ethics in sport by the Flemish minister of Sport. During the next three years (2015-2017) ICES will receive governmental funding to support policy development and practical support to all Flemish sport organizations. Additionally, ICES has successfully led the European ‘preparatory actions’ project to stimulate the individual empowerment of young athletes and a conducive ethical climate in sport organizations, which has resulted in a ‘Safeguarding Youth Sport’ booklet aiming at awareness raising in young elite athletes and their entourage.

Meanwhile, the topic is firmly on the policymakers’ agenda and local initiatives regarding to safeguarding children in sport become more numerous and successful. The positive (soft) approach, chosen by the Flemish authorities, is proving to be (cautious but) fruitful, as gradually more athletes, coaches and board members are ‘getting on board’.


ICES,  (2014). Eindrapport Overheidsopdracht Ethisch Verantwoord Sporten: Vertsrekken van expertise op het vlak van ethisch verantwoord sporten, met inbegrip van de problematiek aangaande integriteit, seksueel misbruik en geweld. Ghent: ICES.

Vertommen, T., Tolleneer, J., Maebe, G. & De Martelaer, K. (2014) Preventing sexual abuse and transgressive behaviour in Flemish sport. In Lang, M. & Hartill, M (Eds): Safeguarding, Child Protection and Abuse in Sport: International Perspectives in Research, Policy and Practice. London: Routledge.

Vertommen, T., Stoeckel, J. T., Vandevivere, L., Van Den Eede, F., & De Martelaer, K. (2014). A green flag for the Flag System? Towards a child protection policy in Flemish sport. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 1–17. doi:10.1080/19406940.2014.947305

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