Canada’s Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge vows to have an independent mechanism for the reporting of maltreatment in sport soon, amid a growing chorus of athlete voices demanding change.
In a story that has caught the eye of U.S. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who famously presided over the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case, more than 70 current and former Canadian gymnasts wrote an open letter to Sport Canada on Monday calling for an independent investigation into the toxic culture of their sport.
That number has grown to more than 150.
St-Onge said an independent mechanism for the reporting abuse and harassment will be operational by late spring through the the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC). Sport Canada intends to make the mechanism mandatory for all federally-funded national sport organizations.
“Let me be clear: there is no place for harassment, abuse, discrimination or maltreatment in sports,” St-Onge said in the statement. “I want to recognize the courage of the athletes who have come forward.”
Gymnastics has been notorious for stories of abuse. Nassar is serving a life sentence after sexually assaulting dozens of young women and girls under the guise of medical treatment. The investigation and trial was chronicled in the Netflix documentary “Athlete A.”
In a statement released Tuesday, Aquilina said she strongly encouraged Sport Canada to instigate a third-party investigation.
“The importance of allowing 150 women and girls, who were abused by Larry Nassar and leaders of USA Gymnastics, to present personal testimony on their abuse cannot be underestimated,” Aquilina said. “Athletes and victims must be heard, must be believed, and must be protected… True leaders will embrace the truth and use it to protect innocent victims of abuse in sport.”
Canadian gymnasts say their sport is rife with complaints of emotional, physical and even sexual abuse of athletes, many of them minors.
“When you grow up in that kind of toxic environment, it has lasting effects on your life,” retired rhythmic gymnast Rosie Cossar told The Canadian Press. “That’s your developmental stages, you don’t have any sense of identity or confidence or of what’s right and wrong. You’re extremely vulnerable.”
Cossar, a 2012 Olympic and former team captain, said she documented and reported to Gymnastics Canada (GymCan) numerous incidents of maltreatment she witnessed.
In their letter to Sport Canada, athletes said that the fear of retribution has prevented them from speaking out for nearly a decade.
“However, we can no longer sit in silence,” they wrote. “We are coming forward with our experiences of abuse, neglect, and discrimination in hopes of forcing change.”
The gymnasts joined a growing chorus of complaints from athletes in bobsled and skeleton to rowing, rugby, track and field, synchronized swimming, wrestling and women’s soccer.
St-Onge has called for a financial audit into Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton after a similar open letter signed by more than 90 athletes called for the resignation of their national sport organization’s acting CEO and high performance director.
“Sport organizations, coaches and athletes have highlighted the need for an independent mechanism where athletes can report instances of maltreatment,” St-Onge said. “(Monday’s) open letter is a reminder that we must take action to create a cultural shift in sport at all levels.
“All athletes have the right to practise their sport in a healthy, safe, ethical and respectful environment. This is a collective responsibility of all those around athletes.”
The Canadian Olympic Committee said in a statement it was pleased to see the Sport Minister making this work a priority.
“We’re extremely disturbed by the number of recent complaints brought forward by athletes across a number of Canadian sports,” the statement said. “We believe a safe and high-performing sport-system depends on a strong culture and stakeholders trusting the tools available to them for reporting and dispute resolution.”
GymCan’s board of directors denied in a statement Tuesday that it received the letter, which was addressed to the organization’s CEO Ian Moss, plus Canadian Olympic Committee president Trisha Smith, and CEO of Own the Podium Anne Merklinger.
“While we are saddened to learn that dozens of athletes feel that we failed to address these issues, we are committed to continuing to educate and advocate for system-wide reforms that will help ensure all participates feel respected, included and safe when training and competing in sport,” the board said in the lengthy statement. “We are aligned with the signatories to the letter that we be part of the solution to oversee complaints.”
Later Tuesday, the Canadian gymnasts said in a statement in response to GynCan’s release that they “rigorously challenge GymCan’s statement that they have appropriately ‘addressed every complaint or concern that has come forward.’
“Many of the athletes who have signed the letter have brought complaints to GymCan, only to have them dismissed, ignored, or mismanaged,” the statement read.
Numerous gymnastics coaches across Canada have faced suspensions and even arrests for various forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Kim Shore, a former member of GymCan’s board of directors, said she’s received over 100 complaints from parents over the past five years. She described one coach who allegedly slapped athletes in the face, pulled their hair, physically stretched them to the point of injury, and told them they were “fat, stupid, ugly.” The coach is still working in Canada.
“The stories are so consistent … and this is not 20 years ago, this is today,” said Shore, whose daughter quit the sport at age 13 amid what Shore called an abusive environment. “There’s a gender-based violence aspect to it. These are really young kids, I’m talking about six to eight to 10 year olds, that seems to be the peak onset of really harsh and cruel treatment that works to help them become more compliant, and easy to control and manipulate.
“The kids start to fear the coach more than they fear the skills that everybody else thinks looks so scary.”
Recent complaints across several sports have prompted increasing calls for a thorough look at the Canadian sport system as a whole.
Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement founded to address the balance of power between athletes and administrators, suggested an investigation similar to the McLaren Report that uncovered statewide doping in Russia in 2016.
“Surely, we will see some type of leadership, I hope,” Koehler told The Canadian Press. “I’m never 100 per cent confident, but some type of leadership saying we need to take a pause here and evaluate the current landscape of our system in Canada to either correct the wrongdoings to ensure they never happened again.
“But sport seems to be more interested in isolating and insulating itself from any scandals versus exposing it to make it better. I don’t think this wave of athlete activism is going to slow down.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press