June 20, 2024


Exercise makes us healthy

Canadian gymnasts call on Ottawa to launch probe into what they say is sport’s toxic culture


Signed by 71 current and former athletes, the letter is addressed to Vicki Walker, director general of Sport Canada, the federal department that funds the more than 60 National Sport Organizations across the country. The letter is also copied to Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge, pictured.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

A group of more than 70 current and former elite Canadian gymnasts are calling on the federal government to investigate what they say are abusive practices and a toxic culture inside their sport.

The athletes, including several Olympians, say concerns over sexual, physical and emotional abuse have not been properly addressed by the sport’s governing body. They are calling for Ottawa to hold an independent investigation, with the findings and any subsequent recommendations made public.

Gymnasts who spoke to The Globe and Mail said they don’t have confidence that problems reported inside Gymnastics Canada are investigated properly or fairly, and that athletes don’t have the ability to speak up without fear of retribution.

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It is the latest instance of athletes raising their voice about oversight problems in Canada’s National Sport Organizations, including a lack of transparent, independent investigations when allegations of abuse or wrongdoing emerge. Olympians in synchronized swimming, as well as bobsleigh and skeleton, have raised similar concerns in recent months, with a specific focus on how complaints are handled.

“For almost a decade, the fear of retribution has prevented us and scores of other athletes from speaking out. However we can no longer sit in silence. We are coming forward with our experiences of abuse, neglect and discrimination in the hopes of forcing change,” the gymnasts’ letter says.

Signed by 71 current and former athletes, including 10 Olympians, the letter is addressed to Vicki Walker, director general of Sport Canada, the federal department that funds the more than 60 National Sport Organizations across the country.

“We ask Sport Canada to take action to ensure the next generation of Canadian gymnasts is not subject to the physical and psychological trauma that we have had to endure.”

Though the letter does not list specific allegations, it says past cases have not been handled properly by Gymnastics Canada and that there are “more examples of harm that have not yet come to light.”

The letter is also copied to Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge; Canadian Olympic Committee president Tricia Smith; Ian Moss, chief executive officer of Gymnastics Canada; and Anne Merklinger, CEO of federal athletic funding organization Own the Podium.

Gymnastics Canada has indicated it is undertaking a review of its policies; however, the gymnasts say more is needed.

Rose Cossar, who captained Canada’s rhythmic gymnastics team at the 2012 London Olympics, told The Globe athletes brought serious allegations to the organization about a coach who was unprofessional and psychologically damaging to the athletes. However, there was no proper mechanism to complain, and nothing was done to remove the coach.

“I reported everything to Gymnastics Canada at the time. An incident would happen and I would report it that same evening, and they just weren’t able to do anything about it, which I always found so confusing,” Ms. Cossar said.

The gymnasts’ letter mirrors a similar letter sent this month by bobsled and skeleton athletes, who complained about safety, transparency and governance practices within Bobsleigh Skeleton Canada. It also comes amid allegations from several Olympic synchronized swimmers that coaches at Canada Artistic Swimming used questionable science to coerce them to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, resulting in dangerous eating disorders and leaving some hospitalized and with life-long health consequences.

Ms. Cossar said the push from athletes in other sports led the gymnasts to make their concerns public.

“With other sports coming out and publicly saying that there are issues at a systemic level and athletes speaking up, with all of the problems that I know exist in all of the gymnastics disciplines, it would be foolish for us not to use that same momentum to be very forward and transparent about everything that’s going on,” Ms. Cossar said.

Kim Shore, a former gymnast who sat on the board of Gymnastics Canada from 2018 to 2021 and was formerly the chair of its Safe Sport committee, also signed the letter. Ms. Shore, whose daughter was a gymnast, said she resigned from her roles because she became increasingly frustrated that complaints of abuse and allegations against coaches weren’t being handled properly or with urgency, and that issues were being dismissed or swept aside.

“There are so few options available to athletes for how they communicate problems within the sport, let alone abuse, or anything that could have serious ramifications for any one they complain about, as well as themselves,” Ms. Shore told The Globe.

“It’s worth noting that the current athletes, particularly those on the national team, are very reluctant to come forward with any complaints. And so they are looking to those of us who don’t have as much at stake. They’re looking to us, and pleading with us to help them move this forward.”

Following a Globe and Mail investigation into the problems at Canada Artistic Swimming, which highlighted the lack of a proper complaints mechanism for athletes, Ms. St-Onge said she would undertake a review of how abuse is dealt with by national sport organizations.

Ms. St-Onge said she would also close a key loophole exposed by the investigation and make it mandatory for National Sport Organizations to subject themselves to an independent external body to handle complaints of abuse. Athletes had complained that the governing bodies were effectively allowed to investigate themselves since they were choosing and paying the investigators, and could potentially set parameters on the investigations.

A system to deal with complaints and allegations of wrongdoing at the provincial and club level of sport, where athletes are younger and particularly vulnerable to abuse, is also badly needed, Ms. Shore said.

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