02 April 2020

In a new study LiU researchers demonstrate a link between sexual abuse and suicidal thoughts in elite athletes. "We have shown that emotional pain is important to deal with it”, says professor Toomas Timpka.

A hurdler on the hurdle course from a bird eye's view.
Paul Bradbury

Early one morning in April 2011, Toomas Timpka, consultant and professor at Linköping University, was awakened by the phone ringing.

“It was a colleague who said that I should listen to the news on the radio. I switched it on and heard journalists talking about [Swedish high jumper] Patrik Sjöberg and the sexual abuse he had experienced.” 

Toomas Timpka was shocked by the news.

“Sexual abuse in athletics was something that hadn’t been talked about very much. I’ve worked as a doctor in sports medicine and met many elite athletes, but the thought of something like this hadn’t occurred to me”, he says.

Toomas Timpka carries out research into sports medicine in the Department of Health, Medicine and Caring Sciences. Together with his research group, he recently published a study that aroused considerable attention in the prestigious British Journal of Sports Medicine. It demonstrates a link between sexual abuse and suicidal thoughts in elite athletes.


Athletes with poor mental health

As early as 2012, Toomas Timpka and his colleagues started to study athletes and abuse. They examined a broad group of people active in sport.

“When we talked to the participants, we saw that some had poor mental health. The #metoo movement started soon after, and short-distance runner Moa Hjelmer revealed that she had been subjected to abuse during an international championship.”

Toomas Timpka was contacted by the Swedish Athletics Association, which asked him to investigate the situation for those active in the Swedish national team.

“Research in other countries has shown that elite athletes often have people close who have power over them. It is similar to the situation in the film industry, where people work closely together. This easily leads to unhealthy situations of dependency.”

Toomas Timpka’s research group at Athletics Research Center decided to carry out the study, and wanted to expand it. They didn’t just look at the frequency of abuse, but also on how it affected the wellbeing of the athletes.

“This is the background to the study we have now published. We wanted to know the frequency of abuse similar to that which Patrik and Moa had been subjected to, and how it affects mental health.”


Different situation for male elite athletes

Toomas Timpka’s study shows that the occurrence of physical sexual abuse is the same among members of Sweden’s national team as it is among athletes more generally. Approximately 2-3% had been subjected to abuse in association with sporting activity. This rose to 15% for abuse generally, not specifically in association with sport. This is about the same as in the group of young adults in the overall population.

“What were the consequences of the abuse for the athletes? We chose to examine suicidal thoughts. Our study shows that among female elite athletes, suicidal thoughts are clearly linked with having experienced sexual abuse. The young women who have been subjected to abuse have a higher frequency of suicidal thoughts than those who have not.”

The situation is different for male elite athletes.

“This is partly due to men being less frequently subjected to abuse, although it does take place. For the young men, their mental health depended on the coping strategies they used. For example, those who try to pretend that sexual abuse is not a problem by, for example, making jokes about it run a higher risk of developing suicidal thoughts”, says Toomas Timpka.

Becoming an elite athlete involves learning how to manage pain

The study also shows that the abusers may be trainers, friends or other athletes.

“The abuser is not always the dirty old man that people imagine. The situation is more complex than that”.

Few scientific studies have examined the factors that give rise to poor mental health in elite athletes.

“This is one of the first studies to show that such factors truly exist. This will enable us to work further with these issues.”

Toomas Timpka says that elite sport has a tradition in which you “grin and bear it”.

“The culture here deals with suffering in silence. We want to change that. The pathway to becoming an elite athlete involves learning how to manage pain. But managing pain also brings with it the ability to know when something is wrong. Emotional pain is not something that has been discussed previously. We have shown that it is important to deal with it.”


Considerable international attention

Toomas Timpka’s study has aroused considerable international attention, and some of the world’s most influential sports institutes have invited him as speaker. The intention was that he would present the research at the global meeting of the International Olympic Committee on sports medicine in Monaco, but this has now been postponed due to the spread of the coronavirus.

He is also on the programme as keynote speaker at the American College of Sports Medicine conference in San Francisco in May.

One reason for the intense interest in the study is that Sweden is well advanced in this type of research. Toomas Timpka points out that both the Swedish Sports Confederation and the Swedish Athletics Association take the problem seriously. And people have started to discuss these problems openly in other parts of the world, in particular the US and Europe.

“I’m sure that Patrik Sjöberg has been important for this process. His courage, and the way he spoke out made it easier to talk about abuse in athletics in Sweden. Well, I suspect that it may have happened even so, but it would have taken longer”, says Toomas Timpka.


Link to the study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine
Suicidal thoughts (ideation) among elite athletics (track and field) athletes: associations with sports participation, psychological resourcefulness and having been a victim of sexual and/or physical abuse

Translated by George Farrants


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