Scales should be banned from children’s gyms. Parents must be allowed to watch. Rules of acceptable behavior should be posted on gym walls with a toll-free line to report violations.
They may seem like basic safety precautions for children in sport, but they don’t exist on a large scale in Canada. Amid what Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge called a safe sport “crisis”, many current and former athletes say the country has long been waiting for an overhaul of sports culture.
More than 1,000 gymnastics, boxing and bobsleigh/skeleton athletes have called for independent investigations into their sports in recent weeks, and last week former gymnast Amelia Cline filed a proposed class action lawsuit against Gymnastics Canada and six provincial federations.
The proposed class of plaintiffs allege abuse dating back to 1978 and say the organizations created a culture and environment where abuse could occur and failed to protect the mostly underage athletes in their care.
One of the class members told The Canadian Press that she would like to see the display of appropriate behavior, with a call-in number, made mandatory in gymnasiums.
“A lot of these rules sound like common sense, [but] it’s scary how common sense doesn’t seem to permeate gymnastics culture,” said the retired gymnast, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
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St-Onge said that in her first five months as sports minister she had received complaints of abuse, mistreatment or embezzlement against at least eight national teams, including rugby and rowing.
The outpouring of heartbreaking stories sparked many conversations, around shared experiences and suggested solutions.
Ciara McCormack, the soccer player who was the first to publicly accuse Canada Under-20 coach Bob Birarda of inappropriate behavior, says parents ‘need to have access to their children’s training environments’ .
Few gym facilities allow parents to watch.
NSOs “took advantage” of power
McCormack also believes non-disclosure agreements involving misconduct should be eliminated and education made mandatory for athletes and parents about what abuse looks like and how to report violations. She also suggested an athlete-led organization with a hotline and disciplinary procedures – similar to those for teachers or doctors – where misconduct is recorded and accessed.
“[National sport organizations] have benefited from having all the power and all the resources with the result being an immense amount of harm, and I think it’s crucial that athletes are given power, resources and a voice in the children’s system as ‘recreational athletes all the way up to national team athletes,’ McCormack told The Canadian Press. ‘It was too late.’
Kim Shore, a former gymnast and mother of a former gymnast, said she would like to see scales banned from gyms. Gymnasts said public weigh-ins left them with serious emotional scars years later around body image.
She also suggested an offender registry. Several national sport organizations, including Skate Canada and Athletics Canada, have suspended coaches and athletes listed on their websites.
But there are plenty of holes in the rosters, including the inability to track coaches locally or even provincially. Coaches who are suspended or allowed to quietly leave one club, province or national team can often simply move on to another. Or even another sport.
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Shore said an international database would seem like a pipe dream to many in the sports world, but added that even a provincial and national database would be a “huge step forward.”
She suggested parents do Google searches of potential coaches, as there are often discussions of questionable behavior on websites like Reddit.
“You are exploiting what I think is really our biggest problem in Canada, and that is that we take no action against enablers and institutions that are complicit in enabling further abuses,” said Shore, a former member of the Gymnastics Canada Board of Directors. .
“Sport has failed athletes because they try to operate above the law, and sometimes even within their own laws. So there is very little oversight and accountability,” she added. .
Many training injuries
In her proposed 32-page class action lawsuit, Cline alleges she suffered numerous injuries while training, including back and neck injuries, and broken wrists, hands, fingers and toes. She alleged that her trainer, Vladimir Lashin, overstretched her hamstring to the point that it tore from her pelvis, resulting in an avulsion fracture.
Cline told The Canadian Press that she visited BC Children’s Hospital frequently to the point that staff knew her by name.
“It’s kind of telling when they say, ‘Oh, it’s you again, you’re back,'” said Cline, who is now 32.
Instead of receiving a punishment, Lashin, who did not respond to a request for comment, was named head coach of Canada’s national team for the Athens 2004 Olympics. Gymnastics Canada named him National Coach and High Performance Director of the Women’s Artistic Program in 2009. He resigned in 2010.
Mike Kwiatkowski, a former multi-sport athlete and graduate of the International Olympic Academy’s master’s program, said parents should view the lack of transparency as a red flag.
“What is the reason for an organization’s actions to provide barriers?” he said. “Child protection isn’t just about ticking the boxes, it’s a responsibility. If there’s no transparency or openness, there’s a huge problem.”
Sport Canada announced this week that its new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC) will be operational as of June 20. The office will receive and process individual complaints of violations of the University Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Abuse in Sport.