Celia Brackenridge was an international sportswoman, a campaigner for women’s causes and an authority on child protection in sport.
Thurs. 24 May 2018 – Celia Brackenridge, who has died aged 67 from leukaemia, was an international sportswoman, a campaigner for women’s causes and an authority on child protection in sport. She carried out pioneering work on the sexual abuse and harassment of young athletes and footballers by their coaches in the 1980s and 90s. Her research led her further to examine the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of all athletes, her findings being met with total denial by the then sports establishment.
In 2001 she began working with the Football Association to assess the state of child protection at clubs, and to monitor a new FA strategy to protect junior players, but what was intended to be a £1m, five-year project was curtailed because of internal disputes in the Football Association and a disagreement between Adam Crozier (then FA chief executive) and the Premier League clubs, which objected to the project. Her work will live on because it is being incorporated into the current inquiry into abuse in football, led by Clive Sheldon QC.
By nature a rebel, Celia would challenge authority, whether at local, national or Olympic level, to take action to protect young people in sport – often facing hostility from those who would not believe that such a problem existed. As she said in the 90s: “People thought I was a troublemaker and trampling on paradise. It was the same in the church – people could not bear to believe this could happen because these were places of sanctuary.”
Her reputation grew in Britain and internationally as she worked in collaboration with the NSPCC, Unicef, the International Olympic Committee and the Paralympic movement. Her final job was as a child protection adviser to Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into the sexual abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile at the BBC.
She was born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, the middle child of John Brackenridge, a dentist, and his wife, Joan (nee Stroud), who was then a Women’s Royal Air Force sergeant and jazz singer. She won an assisted place at Lady Eleanor Holles school for girls in Hampton, south-west London, where she excelled in sport and music. Against the wishes of her headteacher, she decided not to go to university and instead trained as a physical education teacher at Bedford College of Education.
She shone at Bedford and was selected to be one of the few certificate of education students to go to Cambridge University, where, as well as a BEd with first-class honours (1972), she earned a double sporting blue, for lacrosse at national level and for women’s cricket at county level.
She was selected to play lacrosse for England and then Great Britain. She became captain, winning the Vaux Silver award for leading the team to five victories over Australia in 1979. She was in the side for 14 years, making the Guinness Book of Records in the mid-80s for the most appearances as a GB lacrosse player.
She then had a brief period as national team coach for the Lacrosse World Cup in the US, where she was not as successful, having already changed career direction for academia by becoming a full-time lecturer at a teacher training college, now part of Sheffield Hallam University.
She was a founder and first chair of the Women’s Sports Foundation UK, a lobby group intended to raise public awareness of gender inequality in sport and influence public policy. She described it as “like a Greenpeace for women’s sport”.
This transformed itself into the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation. In 1994, in Brighton, it held its first world conference attended by 82 countries and adopted what became known as the Brighton Declaration on Women and Sport, promoting the involvement of women at all levels in sport, including coaching and administration. This has now been taken up by more than 150 national organisations.
At the same time Celia pioneered research into the sexual and physical abuse of young athletes by their coaches. Her initial research was greeted with hostility from UK sports governing bodies. Even after Paul Hickson, a former chief swimming coach at the Seoul Olympics, was jailed in 1995 for 17 years for raping two girls and indecently assaulting many others, Celia still received hate mail and suffered from sporting bodies refusing to allow her to develop her work.
In 1994 she moved to Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, becoming professor of sport and leisure. Her final academic post was as professor and director for youth sport and athlete welfare at Brunel University (2005-10), retiring as professor emerita.
In 2012 she was appointed OBE for services to child protection and equality in sport, and she helped set up the charity Safe Sport International with Unicef, working with the Olympic and Paralympic movements to promote athlete protection and welfare. She received numerous awards and honorary fellowships including a lifetime achievement award.
From 1988 Celia’s partner was Diana Woodward. They entered into a civil partnership in 2006. Diana described Celia as a person who “did not suffer fools gladly” but who “was perpetually surprised to find that some people found her intimidating. She could be rather pompous, but was easy to tease.”
Celia and Diana’s self-built innovative timber eco-house on the outskirts of Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, featured in the Grand Designs television programme in September 2012.
Celia is survived by Diana, two stepsons, Alex and Nick, her sister, Dinah, and her brother, Glenn.
- Celia Brackenridge, sportswoman, campaigner and academic, born 22 August 1950; died 23 May 2018
by David Hencke, The Guardian