Safe-sport ‘crisis’ shows Canadian sport system needs maintenance, if not total overhaul

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The voices of Canadian athletes concerned for their health and safety have opened the eyes of federal sport minister Pascale St-Onge to what she called a crisis.

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“Since I was appointed, more than eight reports of abuse or maltreatment have come forward from athletes or groups of athletes. This is a crisis and we need to acknowledge it as so,” St-Onge, named sport minister last October, said in a statement earlier this month.

Is this the inflection point that some athletes and advocacy organizations — such as Global Athlete — can parlay into the collective bargaining power they believe is required to facilitate systemic change in the Canadian sport system? Or is this a hot spot that will be doused by the recent appointment of Canada’s first sport integrity commissioner Sarah-Eve Pelletier, by the federal budget allocation of $16 million over three years to run her office, and by St-Onge’s commitment to fast-tracking an independent national safe sport mechanism?

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It depends who you ask. But it appears Canada’s high-performance sport system requires maintenance, if not an outright overhaul.

About 400 signatories to an open letter published March 28 by Global Athlete, a privately funded athletes’ rights organization founded in 2019, are demanding a third-party investigation of the “toxic culture” of abuse they allege Gymnastics Canada has allowed to fester.

“Over the past five years alone, there have been multiple complaints about and even arrests for various forms of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse,” the letter stated. “The subjects of these complaints have been Canadian coaches, many of whom we were exposed to as minors at GymCan sponsored training camps, provincial/national competitions, and national team assignments. We know that there are many more examples of harm that have not yet come to light, and we know that abusive behaviours continue in gyms across this country today.”

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In the last decade, synchronized swimmers, alpine skiers, soccer and rugby players — most of them female — have reported psychological, verbal, physical and sexual abuse inside national-team programs. In most cases, the athletes did not feel empowered to speak up until years after the offences were committed.

“If you look at the abuse being exposed over the past years in Canadian sport, if you took that same abuse and put it into schools or put it into a workplace, people would be fired, people would be going to court, going to jail or being sued,” said Rob Koehler, director-general of Global Athlete. “Somehow, sport has managed this lovely area of arbitration, where everything is done behind closed doors, there is no public understanding of it and they try to resolve all issues themselves. That needs to change. That power imbalance is the root of all of these issues. The power imbalance creates the fear of retribution.”

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Some athletes have in fact forced cases into the open. Former Alpine Canada coach Bertrand Charest was arrested in 2015 and convicted two years later of 37 sexual assault and sexual exploitation offences against nine former national team skiers between 1991 and 1998. In 2019, the Quebec Court of Appeal dropped 21 charges and reduced Charest’s 12-year sentence to 57 months. He was granted conditional release the next year.

In February, former women’s under-20 national team soccer coach Bob Birarda pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault and one of touching a young person for a sexual purpose, offences that occurred between 1998 and 2006.

In March 2021, five former synchronized swimmers filed a request for a $250,000 class-action lawsuit in a Quebec court, alleging Canada Artistic Swimming did not protect them from physical and emotional abuse and harassment — including bullying and body shaming — at the hands of current and former coaches.

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In sports where verbal, psychological and physical abuse from coaches was widespread, former athletes who were affected by it as children and teens, carry it with them years and decades later in the form of eating disorders and depression.

“I think high-performance sport has to look in the mirror and ask itself the question; what is this worth?” said former gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, an Olympic gold medalist in floor exercise at Athens 2004 and now owner of a gym in Calgary. “There is a way to create champions and high-performing athletes in a very positive environment where the athletes do have a lot of independence, they do have a lot of agency, and we don’t need to use fear and manipulation, those tactics, in order to get the athletes to work hard and be great. The athletes want to work hard and want to be great.

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“If anything, you can look at my experience … I was able to reach the pinnacle of sport in a very positive environment. That needs to be the standard for everybody across all sports. There is a way to do it.”

Shewfelt said his coach gave him independence and a voice. He was not exposed to verbal or psychological abuse but witnessed it happening to other athletes.

“I’m almost 14 years removed from my athletic career and I’m doing a lot of reflecting on the experiences I had and things I saw. You just kind of accepted that the coach is in control, watches what the athletes eat, and in the gym the athletes are not to talk and that kind of stuff. Was that right? Did that really get the results?”

Why were children at a gym in Edmonton forced to do handstands for hours as punishment? Why were they shamed — forced to wear a baby bib and sit in the middle of the gym — after failing to perform a skill on an apparatus?

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They were powerless against the abusive adults in control. Koehler said mature athletes are also hamstrung by a power imbalance. Though some national sport organizations are adding athletes to their boards of directors, they are still outnumbered and lack leverage. Several current and former sliders accused Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton leadership of failures on issues of transparency, culture, athlete safety and governance, and demanded an independent investigation. The organization offered mediation, which the athletes rejected.

The more efficient way forward according to Koehler is the formation of a national team player association for all sports that can conduct collective bargaining on behalf of its members. Athletes could form a trade union or be government employees contracted to Sport Canada or another entity, he said.

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“It’s unthinkable that the No. 1 stakeholder, the athletes, the ones who fill the stadiums, bring in the TV and sponsorship revenues, don’t have an equal partnership and equal say in this business, because it is a business now,” said Koehler, referring to high-performance sport. “What is there to lose by allowing athletes 50 percent of the vote on the decision-making to help grow and form the sport, and have collective representation?”

Alpine Canada CEO Therese Brisson said she “shudders” at the thought of athletes as employees of the government, or an NSO.

“I engage an employee to serve an organization. That’s not what athletes are there to do. They have personal ambitions, they share common objectives with the NSO to represent Canada on the world stage and do their very best. They need help and support and have rights and responsibilities in that engagement.

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“We have athlete agreements that have some basic fundamentals and principles that are in fact required by Sport Canada for athletes to be funded through the Athlete Assistance Program. So I think we have the mechanism that needs to be there. I shudder when I hear of athletes as employees. We’re not in an employment arrangement with them and I don’t think we ever should be.”

Koehler said the Sport Canada agreements are “forced” on athletes.

“That in any other type of society is not acceptable. So sport seems to have been able to navigate its way above the law, have its own law, and be able to oversee and regulate itself, where in every other part of society you can’t do that.”

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He said Global Athlete has helped with the formation of collectives such as The Athletics Association for track and field athletes and Athleten Deutschland or Athletes Germany, which is funded by their national government but remains an independent association. AthletesCAN also advocates for athletes’ rights in Canada, and is run largely by volunteers.

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“I would like us to be more formalized,” said AthletesCAN president Erin Willson. “I know that Athletes Germany has gone that route and it has worked out really well for them.”

Willson said she wasn’t sure that unionizing athletes and having them sign contracts with government bodies was necessary, but she is concerned by the fact that athletes are not afforded normal workplace protections.

“Sports has this exceptionalism complex where they can exist outside of the rules of social norms. In no other organization that has HR would any employee be allowed to do these things to other employees and get away with it. And yet in sports it seems to be dismissed continually. I think that’s a huge part, the accountability of letting sports organizations run themselves.”

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Athletes and NSOs recognize the need for all safe sport complaints to be addressed by a national independent mechanism, replacing those established by individual NSOs, and St-Onge has tasked the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada with its administration.

Brisson said she hopes the national mechanism will support clubs and provinces, not just national teams, and will address not only maltreatment but broader conduct issues such as conflict of interest and financial fraud. And she would like somebody to tell her what it’s going to cost the already cash-strapped NSOs.

“If we have a national independent mechanism that can do that, and if somebody would please tell me how much it will cost, and it will be the same or less than we invest today, that will be super helpful.”

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The sport system already has issues related to under-funding at the so-called reference level, which covers each NSO’s core business costs. They are extensive and include staff and coaching salaries, the hosting of national competitions, national team travel to competitions and training camps, equipment purchase and rental, as well as program development to increase the participation of women and Indigenous athletes.

“The reference-level funding to me is something that really needs to be addressed,” said Brisson. “It hasn’t been increased in some 10 years and you look what’s happened in the last 10 years. We have more things that we need to do and they are the right things to do, but the purchasing power of that $1.35 million we get at Alpine Canada, for example, has declined a fair bit and yet we’re doing our very best with it.”

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The Athlete Assistance Program or “carding” money for athletes is another issue. The top end or senior card offers $1,765 per month tax-free, more than enough for an athlete living at home, not so much for someone supporting a family. Most NSOs in Canada aren’t big-money operations and most athletes aren’t getting rich.

“I have had to work full-time my entire Olympic career and fund-raise,” said recently retired slalom canoeist Haley Daniels. “It cost me $90,000 a year to compete and I had to come up with that all on my own. Finances are such a big part of it. If I had financial support maybe I would have done better. I don’t know. It’s frustrating all around.”

She said she did not “see eye to eye” with her federation, so she hired her own coach, physiotherapist and sport psychologist and trained with other countries’ national teams, all expensive propositions. But athletes who have good working relationships with their NSOs can become disillusioned when funds run short.

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“There are a lot of athletes who have great relationships with their NSOs,” said Brisson, a former national team hockey player. “There is stress and tension in the system because of a lack of resources and some people are better than others at dealing with that.”

Sport Canada commissioned an Ekos Research online survey of carded, high-performance athletes, national team coaches, high-performance directors and NSO presidents. Delivered in August 2020 and entitled 2019-20 Status of the High Performance Athlete, it was the sixth such survey since the 1990s.

Though repeated, comprehensive attempts were made to obtain the participation of all 1,955 carded athletes, the sample size was 846, a response rate of 44%. The survey found that 85% of athlete respondents were satisfied they experienced harassment- and abuse-free sport, 82% experienced a fair and inclusive sport environment, 83% felt treated with respect, and 91% experienced a safe sport environment. Only 38% were satisfied with the income or material awards available.

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Indeed, there is money at the root of many problems. Olympic medal-winning race walker Evan Dunfee is an outspoken critic and admitted beneficiary of the current system that funds high-performance quite well, though some would say at the expense of lower tiers and grassroots.

“I’d rather have a system where our goal is to promote health and wellness throughout the continuum of your time in sport and have you exit sport on your terms,” said Dunfee. “I don’t know what that would look like but my take on it is: If you have a system that helps double or triple the number of athletes who leave on their terms, you’d have way more people turning around and giving back.

“Instead of funnelling all your money into five medals, you filter that money out and get one medal and 15 top eights. Maybe you lose out on some medals because you didn’t pour all your resources into this cutthroat medal-or-nothing mentality, but I’d way rather have all 16 of those athletes leave the sport happy and fulfilled and ready to give back.”

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Own The Podium is integral to the high-performance piece, generating fact-based funding recommendations to Sport Canada, with the goal of maximizing the existing medal potential of athletes in each NSO. The intended results of the tens of millions spent each quadrennial are undeniable; Canadian athletes won 160 Olympic medals in the seven Games between 2010 and 2022, topping the 137 medals won in the eight Olympics between 1994 and 2008. OTP’s critics have been saying for some time there are also unintended consequences, including an exodus of disillusioned national team athletes cast aside when their medal potential wanes.

“While the initial focus was primarily on medals, over the last four to five years, we’ve worked very hard to ensure that essentially how Canada’s athletes achieve success on the international stage is as important as the results themselves,” OTP’s chief executive officer Anne Merklinger recently told Lori Ewing of The Canadian Press. “It’s not just about reaching performance goals, but how you achieve those goals in a supportive culture of excellence that is safe for all to enjoy the journey. We’ve been working very hard on that.”

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There is admittedly more work to be done by many NSOs.

“Some of my more soul-crushing days have been spent talking to more recent alumni who felt they weren’t valued when their time with the national team program came to an end, whether it’s your choice or not and it’s more difficult when it’s not your choice,” said Brisson. “That’s been a real source of tension in the system. The other is injury. When athletes are injured, do you have the resources to adequately support an injured athlete at home while you still have a team on the road?”

Treating those athletes properly is integral to building a culture of excellence. So too is coaching and athlete education, sound policy development, and the elimination of bad and abusive behaviours. It all takes leadership and resources and the system does not always provide both at a sufficient level to keep all athletes happy.

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“It’s not the people, it’s the system,” said Daniels. “Because the people work very hard and they’re overworked and they’re doing way too many things. There just needs to be funding in the foundational infrastructure.

“Half of the athletes that are on the national team don’t come back to the sport at all, the other half have one foot in. For the most part, they are so tired of the system that they leave altogether and don’t look back and I don’t want to be one of those athletes. I always want to be able to give back.”

What, then, is the best way forward? Surely, safe sport concerns need to be heard and investigated by an independent body. It is probably time for Sport Canada to review reference-level funding and carding allowances. And NSOs must do all they can to build a culture of excellence that ensures the well-being of everyone in their programs; athletes, coaches, referees, judges and staff, and gives them all a seat at the table. Because it is clear that many Canadian athletes are ready to speak up.

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“Any sport that doesn’t empower their athletes so they can bring issues to the table and have the dialogue with people in charge, they are wrong,” said Water Polo Canada executive director Martin Goulet. “That has to happen. It’s best practice.

“As CEO of a sports organization, I don’t feel threatened at all by these athletes. People say it’s always ‘poor athletes, poor athletes.’ Yeah, but at the end of the day, these are the people we need to serve. So I’m fine with that. We should also never forget that safe sport is about other people involved in the sport system.”

He mentioned that referees and coaches deserve support, and said the system has to be aware that “some athletes are weaponizing safe sport in order to advance other issues” like complaints over team selection.

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“This is kind of the dark side of that and we need to understand that is happening and I will always speak up against these kinds of things because this is not right,” said Goulet. “So we need a balanced approach.”

Is there a need for unions and collective bargaining to produce the systemic change that some athletes and advocates believe necessary? Again, depends on who you ask.

Koehler said advancements for athletes have largely been forced on institutions such as the International Olympic Committee, but he believes the Canadian high-performance sport system has an opportunity to lead the way forward.

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“Imagine this: We can approach the leadership of Canadian sport and say, Why don’t we be an example for the rest of the world? It’s not going to hurt the sport, because you’ll see from every other sport that’s done it that collective bargaining has yielded benefits for everybody. And we can be pioneers and leaders in terms of player safety, athlete well-being and services. All of the things that you need to do to make sport better.”

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