“We have to preserve the integrity of sports. Sports should be a positive experience for all.”

 Thus says Philippine jiu-jitsu athlete Meggie Ochoa, the main force behind the Safe Sports Working Group. 

 Recognized by the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) on February 18, the group’s journey to recognition mirrors that of Ochoa, who became one of the spearheads of the initiative as a result of a series of serendipitous events and connections made through sport.

 Ochoa started practicing jiu-jitsu in 2013 after college where she was also an athlete in track and field. She picked up jiu-jitsu after finding competitions in mixed martial arts hard to come by because of her small stature as well as the fact that the women’s MMA scene then was just on its upswing. 

 Ochoa then switched to jiu-jitsu where she competes in either the 45 kg or 48 kg division. Since then, the jiujitsuka has won numerous medals for club and country, most recently a gold medal in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.

 But despite all the medals she won, there came a time in her life when she questioned what was everything she won and training she went through for. She found her purpose in early 2015 where after seemingly random events led her to becoming closer to God.

 “I met Him, my life changed, and He led me to do something by using sport because that is the gift He gave me, the skill He gave me”, Ochoa said.

 Armed with purpose and added motivation, Ochoa founded Fight to Protect, an organization aimed at raising through jiu-jitsu awareness about child sexual abuse and exploitation and helping restore child survivors through the sport. 

 Through Fight to Protect, Ochoa made connections that would ultimately lead to the recognition of the Safe Sports Technical Working Group.

 When Ochoa launched Fight to Protect in 2018 through a video that made the rounds on social media, it gained the attention of the Jiu Jitsu International Federation (JJIF) Director General Joachim Thumfart, who in turn introduced Ochoa to Nasser Majali, Secretary General of the Jordan Olympic Committee (JOC), in the 2018 Asian Games.

 Majali was the first to introduce the concept of Safe Sport to Ochoa as the JOC President, Prince Feisal Al Hussein is the Chairman of the IOC’s Prevention of Harassment and Abuse in Sport Working Group.

 From then on, Ochoa became the driving force of the initiative for the creation of a safe sport group in the POC. But she will be the first to admit that she does not deserve most, if any, of the credit. 

 Ochoa credits the Athlete’s Commission with the support of Ms. Karen Caballero and encouragement from Ms. Mikaela Cojuangco-Jaworski and the Philippine Rugby Football Union (PRFU), whose existing safeguarding policies and procedures were a crucial guide for the Safe Sports Technical Working Group.

 The Safe Sports Technincal Working Group’s progress to recognition stalled in 2019 because the POC was focused on the SEA Games, but it was never forgotten by Ochoa as well as the Athlete’s Commission headed by Triathlete Nikko Huelgas.

 By late January 2020, Ochoa presented a proposal to the POC board which was received well. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, consultants to help the POC push forward the creation of the Safe Sports group were unable to come to the Philippines.

 In April however, a little blessing came in the form of a webinar where a ChildFund speaker attended. ChildFund is a child development organization that provides assistance to deprived, excluded, and vulnerable children and it was the organization the PRFU consulted with to create their own safeguarding policies.

 ChildFund then organized an online learning program on safeguarding from September 2020 to January 2021 where many different National Sport Associations (NSA) joined. From this online learning program, more athletes and personalities rallied behind the cause to push it forward to the POC.

 With the Safe Sports Technical Working Group now recognized, Ochoa says that there are three main goals for 2021.

 “One is to come up with policies to prevent and address harassment and abuse in sports, number two is to educate sports stakeholders on the concept of safeguarding, and number three is proposing partnerships,” Ochoa said.

 Looking forward to the future, Ochoa said that ideally, all NSAs should have their own male and female safeguarding focal points whom the POC will help eventually help train. The gold medalist also wants to establish trust between the POC Safe Sports group and the stakeholders. 

 “We hope to develop a reputation that when reports are forwarded to the safe sport group, they know it will be handled well, fairly, and justly”, Ochoa said.

 Ochoa also hopes that the Safe Sports Technical Working Group will send a message to the local and international community that the Philippines takes safeguarding sports seriously.

 Safeguarding is important as it will preserve the integrity of sports, as it will protect the athletes and stakeholders involved. 

 “If we want sports to remain a positive experience, we need to take into consideration the well-being of those involved”, Ochoa said.

 In the IOC’s safeguarding toolkit, it was mentioned that unfortunately, some form of abuse occurs in every level of sport. 

 “Just because no cases are being reported, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening”, the jiujitsuka said.

 But with the recognition of the Safe Sports Technical Working Group by the POC, the Philippines took a major step forward in addressing the issue of abuse and harassment in sports. In the long run, it hopes to completely eradicate the issue.

 And it doesn’t all have to rest on the shoulders of a petite, arm-locking jiu-jitsu gold medalist. We can all do our part.

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