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Why is a child rapist allowed to compete at the Olympics?

This article discusses sexual assault, rape, racial inequity and child abuse at length, please read at your own discretion.

The Olympic Games were founded in 1896 with one simple ethos, to unite people from around the world through sport. It is with this in mind that we now have to come to terms with the fact that at this summer’s games in Paris, one of the competing athletes is a convicted child rapist. That’s right, Dutch beach volleyball player Steven van de Velde, who the Dutch Olympic Committee (NOC) has greenlighted. Van de Velde was convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl in the UK in 2014, he was sentenced to four years in prison. He met his victim online and travelled to the UK with the specific intention to meet her and subsequently rape her. He was later able to serve his sentence in the Netherlands where he only served 12 months of his intended four years.

Upon hearing this news my mind immediately thought back to Brock Turner. Turner, who now goes by Allen Turner, was a Stanford University swimmer who was convicted of sexual assault in 2016. He was sentenced to six months in prison, of which he only served three months. At the time there were many people standing up to defend Turner, minimising the impact of what he did and arguing that a conviction would ruin his life. I immediately thought of Turner when hearing about van de Velde because both cases centre around affluent white male athletes. Essentially, they are both people with large amounts of social capital and privilege. 

All professional sports boards and governing bodies have morality clauses that those who wish to professionally compete must adhere to. Beach volleyball is governed by the FIVB, under their code of conduct it is stipulated that all people representing the sport must reject all forms of harassment and abuse, be it physical, professional or sexual. Why then is it the case that a governing body of the sport, and of the Olympics more widely, have allowed a convicted sexual predator to participate in the sport in any capacity? It calls into question the ability of the Olympics and their associated bodies to act with decisiveness to regulate and safeguard their integrity and the safety of sport.

What does this say about us as a culture? What does this say about the Olympics and what they stand for? While there has been a conscious effort from the NOC to express that van de Velde has reformed his character, it has to be questioned if even if this was the case, someone with a history of sexual assault of minors be allowed to access such coveted opportunities and represent his country globally? One striking difference in all of this is that while Brock Turner had similar aspirations to van de Velde to represent the US at the Olympics, unlike the NOC, USA Swimming served Turner with a lifetime ban from competing in the sport. They cited their zero-tolerance policy toward sexual misconduct as the reason. 

Like all other athletes at the Olympics, van de Velde will be housed in Paris’ Olympic Village. The Olympic Village is a space that will also house women and girls competing in various sports across the span of the games. This means that van de Velde will be in close proximity to underage girls, despite having a conviction for rape of a child under his belt. In an official statement from the NOC to BBC Sport it was stated that “After his release, Van de Velde sought and received professional counselling. He demonstrated to those around him – privately and professionally – self-insight and reflection.”

Even if this is the case, I cannot imagine that young women with already existing pressures to perform and represent their countries on the world stage would want to be in close proximity to a convicted child rapist. It reminds me again of Turner, and particularly the words chosen by his father to protest his prison sentence, he said that the sentence was “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life.

A steep price to pay. The flippant way that Mr Turner spoke of his son’s actions exposes something disturbing that permeates the entire system around convicting rape and sentencing rapists, we live in a global culture made by and for men. Particularly by and for straight, white, wealthy men. This is why people like Turner can get by the a three-month stint in prison and van de Velde can compete at the Olympic Games. To put this into an even more alarming contrast, one needs to only look at Sha’Carri Richardson.

Sha’Carri Richardson is a black woman and runner from the US. She was banned from competing at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics because she was found to have THC in her system. THC is a main component of cannabis. While cannabis is a banned substance for athletes along anti-doping rules, it has no proven or measurable impact on an athlete’s ability to perform in any sport. It also was legal in the state Richardson lives in, meaning she did not violate any laws by using the drug. Despite this and the fact Richardson claimed to use cannabis to help cope with the death of her mother, she was swiftly banned from competing in the Olympics.

While it is true that Richardson did break a rule associated with the fairness of the Games, it is important to note that her acts did not threaten the integrity, safety or morality of the Olympics. The rules around cannabis for athletes were called into question but still, her ban was maintained. It is important to remember this because as a black woman, Richardson has inherent systemic oppression working against her and her ability to access social mobility. She has since continued to compete after a short-term ban from her sport, though the setback of an Olympic ban will have had serious implications for her professional development and reputation.

It feels oxymoronic that one person can literally rape a child and be allowed to compete at the Olympics while staying in accommodation with women and minors, yet another is harshly banned for an act that had no real impact on her ability to fairly compete. There is still a global double standard for people of colour, women, and white men in what is considered forgivable or permissible. If van de Velde was black would he receive the same treatment? If Brock Turner wasn’t from a WASPy background would he have skated by with three months of time served before bounding into the arms of his father? While this conversation operates on hypotheticals, one thing is clear.

Steven van de Velde should not be allowed to compete at the Olympic Games. The premeditated rape of a child is not something that can be so easily forgiven and forgotten.

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