Sandra Kirby

Sandra Kirby

A former Olympian and University of Alberta alumna whose pioneering research on athlete sexual harassment, abuse, homophobia and violence as well as her advocacy for equity, inclusion and safety in sport, has been inducted into The Order of Canada.

Sandra Kirby, who graduated with her PhD. from the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation in 1986, has worked on sport equity and the prevention of harm to athletes in sport since the early 1980s.

Before that, however, Kirby represented Canada at the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal as a rower.

Her involvement in sport and physical activity inspired her to pursue her academic interests in sports science bringing her to the U of A, where she completed a PhD under the advisor of Professor Emeritus Harvey Scott.

After completing her PhD dissertation entitled “High Performance Female Athlete Retirement,” Kirby taught at two universities in the Maritimes before joining the Sociology Department at the University of Winnipeg.

Frustrated that much of the history of sport was male dominated—media coverage, access to events, salaries, prize money and opportunities—Kirby started working with top researchers inside and outside of sport to address gender equity.

Kirby lobbied to convince the International Olympic Committee that female athletes should not have to undergo chromosomal testing to verify their gender—a requirement for competition that was not dropped until 2000.

“When I was tested, there was a requirement for all Olympians in women’s events to be tested. We had to consent to being tested or not compete. It was a choice of one, as I now call it.”

Kirby’s interest expanded to include race and Indigeneity, LGBTQ and later persons living with disabilities, however a chance encounter with a former athlete who disclosed being sexually abused by a coach over a long period of time was the beginning of Kirby’s commitment to protecting athletes from abuse and safeguarding for children in sport.

Kirby worked with the UNICEF Task Force on Child Protection in Sport and, later, with the International Olympic Committee on developing a Consensus Statement on Sexual Harassment and Abuse, which was published in 2006 and renewed in 2016.

As a founding member of Safe Sport International, a collective group that focuses on non-accidental harms that undermine both the mental and physical health of the athlete, Kirby has been active in the planning of conferences to communicate global progress in safe sport initiatives. She has recently been involved in research on linking global issues in disclosure and reporting of child abuse with those in the sporting world.

One of the most pressing issues in equity, diversity, inclusion and safety in sport continues to be the issue of the human rights of athletes. Participants cannot have a fully positive experience in an environment where they or others experience discrimination.

“Without inclusion, you cannot have a respectful sport environment,” she said.

As an educator, Kirby said she cherishes the moments of excitement that comes when a student catches onto a new train of thought and follows it through to a cogent product.

“I have always thought that as a teacher and a coach one has to be the very best person you know how to be. For me that includes bringing my full self through the door when working with others, always striving to be better, to be open, to learn as well as to teach. Out of that approach has come deep friendships and inspiring moments of insight.”

The Order of Canada is one of the highest honours in Canada and recognizes the outstanding achievements, dedication to community and service to the nation and U of A alumni continue to be honoured for the extraordinary contributions they make.