South Africa | Yoshini Perumal, The Post

Roshni Gajjar has made history as the first South African woman to join a global research team, fighting the online abuse of athletes and sports officials.

Gajjar, of Port Elizabeth, who has extensive expertise in motorsport, was one of four women in the world chosen by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body of world motorsport, to receive a prestigious Global Research Scholarship, in support of the FIA’s United Against Online Abuse (UAOA) campaign.

This month, she joins Ana Rodriguez Armendariz of Mexico, Kimberley Wyllie of Scotland and Maria Luliano of Italy to roll out research programmes at the Dublin City University over two years, with full funding from the FIA Foundation.

Through improving the understanding of online abuse against athletes and officials, they hope to drive behavioural and regulatory change to combat abuse in the world of sport and e-sport.

The UAOA campaign was launched when last year, FIA president and founding partner of UAOA Mohammed Ben Sulayem came out strongly against the unacceptable levels of online abuse which he said was creating a blight on sport.

He said the level of sustained toxicity had reached a crisis point and it was time to take a stand.

Gajjar said she was proud to be a part of the diverse scholarship group to fight abuse of athletes globally.

“Online abuse deters people from participating, as it infringes on their human rights and compromises the psychological safety of victims, especially women and young people who are avid social media users.

“Athletes, officials and volunteers will leave the sport if nothing is done to protect them. Sport fuels passion and exercises potential. This opportunity presents a unique privilege to give back; to play my part in the global move to combat online abuse. I hope to make a positive difference,” she said.

Gajjar said the victims of online abuse were mainly elite, young and female athletes.

“Online abuse can be triggered by good or bad performance. In sport, there is always a winner and a loser. But sport is driven by loyalty, passion and emotion. Athletes are giving their 100% to every game, but are lambasted on social media when things don’t turn out the way a supporter wants it to.

“When it becomes a trend on social media, it starts harming their mental health. One has no control of engagement online. Most people remain anonymous, so it’s hard to tell where it stems from. As spectators and lovers of sport, everyone has an opinion. Sport also fuels national pride and is impacted by cultural and language differences,” Gajjar said.

She added that online abuse affected every type of sport. Whether an athlete was at an elite or rising star level, if they felt victimised and intimidated, it was hard for them to perform at their best as abuse impacted their confidence.

“Athletes are less likely to compete or participate after they are victims of online abuse. A survey done by FIA indicated that 90% of athletes said that if nothing is done about online abuse, they would consider leaving the sport. When it starts impacting the safety and security of the athlete and their families, it becomes quite serious.

“Sporting federations do not put these issues into the spotlight because it is already sensitive. But authorities play a part in the process to mitigate the situation.

“Hence, it is very critical that we need to understand what is the prevalence, what causes it, what are the triggers and the level of abuse. Flaming, where someone threatens or sends an abusive or rude message to an identified target, is also becoming very prevalent,” she said.

Adrian Scholtz, the MotorSport South Africa’s chief executive, said Gajjar’s selection would add a South African perspective to the FIA’s UAOA global initiative.

“We are also highly supportive that the FIA has selected four women. It is commendable that they initiated the research to develop evidence-based information to steer online abuse combat strategies. Online abuse goes against the spirit of fair play and has no place in sport,” Scholtz added.

Gajjar is a strategy consultant and chartered accountant by profession, and the executive director of Future Ones, a non-profit company providing science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) educational programmes for motorsport in schools in South Africa.

Her work has been largely in motorsport, media, reporting on the F1 and promoting F1 in schools through a fun and educational Stem programme.