James Lawton: Kayla Harrison's courage sheds light on Judo's darkest corner

American wins gold medal but her most important victory came when she gave evidence against coach who abused her

As Kayla Harrison strived for a judo gold medal yesterday – the first in America's history – it was one of those occasions which remind you that sometimes the margin between victory and defeat is so fine that in a vital way it ceases to exist.

Certainly, you could make such an assessment of the Olympic fate of the 22-year-old who a few years ago was found sobbing uncontrollably in the corridor of a US courthouse.

It was on the day she gave the evidence that sent her coach from childhood down for 10 years for sexual abuse.

Not surprisingly for many – and maybe not least Harrison, who is ranked world No 2 in her 78kg category – yesterday was as much an exorcism as a last push for glory.

Recently she recalled the point of collapse as she prepared to face the ordeal of the sentencing of Daniel Doyle, a man she had come to see as her "sun."

"In my mind back then I still felt it was my fault," she said. "I felt I had done something wrong and he was going to jail. I should be in trouble. That it took two to tango. I thought it had been a real relationship – and that I loved him and he loved me. I thought I was going to marry him."

She was 13 when the abuse started. When he was charged, Doyle was ordered not to make contact with her but, according to Harrison's mother, he continued to do so, using disposable phones and ordering his victim to do the same.

A month after the first revelation, Harrison's family moved her 800 miles from her Ohio home to Massachusetts and the care of Jimmy Pedro, an Olympic medallist and the son of Big Jim Pedro, doyen of American judo coaches. Harrison was also getting other phone calls telling her not to go to court. She was told it was all nonsense, something that had happened only in her own her head.

The Pedro family became her guardians and Jimmy reports: "We could help her with her judo skills but first we had to put her life in peace. She had to face this person in court, put him behind bars and move on with her life. We told her, 'What you are doing is 100 per cent correct and we stand behind you'."

Big Jim added: "Look, she's not 100 per cent. There will always be scars. But she's a lot stronger than she was. She has got her life back." One result is an ambition to become a firefighter.

Yesterday, win or lose Harrison was surely involved in a story of triumph. However, it was one that hardly wiped away the fear that her case, her long years of emotional enslavement and sexual abuse, were not isolated outrage of broken trust.

Harrison starkly described the momentum of her ordeal of potential crack-up.

"When you're in a situation like I was – training at a high level – you do have to be close to your coaches. And from the time I was eight years old until I was 16 Daniel Doyle was my sun. My world revolved around him and I wanted to do nothing but please him."

There have been a disconcertingly high number of cases reported down the years, with the most high-profile no doubt coming in the Russian newspaper in which Olga Korbut, the angel of Munich who enchanted the world with her brilliance and waifish charm in the gymnastic hall of the 1972 Games, claimed that she had been the "sex slave" of her coach in her teenage years.

Down the years, the allegations have accumulated – and with varying degrees of official reaction.

Seventeen years ago Paul Hickson, Britain's head swimming coach at Seoul, was sentenced to 17 years' imprisonment when 13 of his former charges reported sexual abuse.

Katherine Starr, formerly known as Annabelle Cripps, was not one of the accusers but later the former star of American college swimming who became a member of the British team, claimed that she had been abused by Hickson – between the ages of 14 and 21.

Earlier this year, in the wake of a report that 36 coaches had been disciplined for sexual misconduct by the US Swimming Association over the previous decade, Starr founded a watchdog agency, Safe4Athletes, to monitor mistreatment of young athletes.

In one interview she claimed Hickson, who died in prison, had started grooming her at the age of 13.

She also said: "When you are a young girl and an elite athlete there is so much going on. You are budding into sexuality. There are boys.

"There's fame. Everybody at school knows you are a good athlete. You get to travel and you get special privileges, and you have a sense of accomplishment. It's a like a drug, and you spend more and more time with a coach who controls all."

Yesterday's heroine-elect Harrison is quick to speak of the support she has received from the Pedro family and has spoken of the uplift that comes when you learn to trust someone with whom you are obliged to work every day. Back in Ohio, she tearfully told a judge that her desire to compete at a high level in sport had turned her passion into a form of imprisonment.

Now she is liberated and ready to add her voice to all those who speak of their coaches as men and women of vital, selfless guidance and support. But first she had to shed some light on an extremely dark place. No one could dispute that she did it with gold medal courage.

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