Canada’s top athletes are starting to mobilize to change the culture of high performance

Canada’s top athletes are ready to mend broken trust with those who manage them, their leaders say, but the question is how.

In what she calls a crisis, Canada’s new sports minister, Pascale St-Onge, says there have been reports of mistreatment, sexual abuse and embezzlement against at least eight sports organizations since she took office in October and she expects more.

The Minister organizes round tables on the issue and invites athlete representatives to the table.

A unified message is needed, said Erin Willson, who is a former artistic swimmer now president of the national athlete association AthletesCan.

“There’s a trust that’s been broken, but from what we’ve heard from the athletes, they’re ready to take those steps,” she said Friday. “The big question is how do we change the culture and I think there is no single answer.”

About 110 athletes took part in a virtual assembly on Thursday evening.

It was moderated by Willson, and Rosannagh MacLennan and Tony Walby representing the Canadian Olympic Committee and Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Commissions respectively.

“The call was supposed to be a starting point,” said MacLennan, a two-time Olympic women’s trampoline champion. “That’s by no means the only conversation we have with the athletes.”

Safe sport was a hot topic in Canada before the recent wave of athlete unrest.

Former Canadian Sports Minister Kirsty Duncan made harassment and abuse training mandatory in 2019 for athletes, coaches, parents, officials, administrators, adhering to a universal code of conduct and the creation of an independent third party to investigate complaints.

The pandemic has slowed the implementation

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed national sports organizations in their implementation. Preparing athletes to compete and overcome the pandemic challenges of the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing was the priority.

“I think there’s a lot of frustration among athletes just because things aren’t moving as fast as they would like,” said Willson, who competed in artistic swimming for Canada at the 2012 Olympics. .

“There’s frustration that conversations start with good intentions but sometimes drift away from certain details and finances and things like that instead of this priority of athlete safety as number one.”

Athletes want a change in a culture that they believe puts medals, and the money needed to earn those medals, ahead of their mental health and well-being.

“There is a lot of mistrust”

Do they trust the organizations that created the culture to change it?

“For the most part right now, no,” said Walby, a two-time Paralympic judoka. “There is a lot of distrust and a lot of that comes from stories in the media and from history.

“Are they going to trust the NSO to make the cultural changes or are they going to trust the NSO or Sports Canada or some other body, like the minister? This is where we come in. This is where our voice will be loudest. .”

Says Willson: “There’s this notion that athletes are here to burn it all down. I really don’t think that’s the case. I think there’s a willingness to work together and be on the same side.”

St-Onge announced $16 million in money for safe sport in the recent federal budget and appointed a Sport Integrity Commissioner who will take office May 1.

While there are safe sport mechanisms available to athletes in unhealthy training environments, preventing those environments is best for athletes forced to defend themselves against in addition to the pressures of training and competition, said Willson.

“If you’re in an abusive training environment and that’s causing these mental health issues, it’s now up to the athlete to seek the help they wouldn’t need had they been in a more positive environment.” , she says.