The Current

Canada's track community calls for accountability, change in wake of misconduct allegations against top coach

Long-distance runners and Olympic hopefuls Rachel Cliff and Krista DuChene say more must be done to empower and safeguard athletes following sexual misconduct allegations against a prominent Canadian track coach.

Dave Scott-Thomas, who ran University of Guelph's track program for 20 years, was fired in December

Former Olympian Krista DuChene trained under Scott-Thomas, a top Canadian track coach who has been accused of sexual misconduct. She is now calling for the organizations involved to explain what went wrong and to be held accountable. (Inside an Athletes Head/CBC)

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Members of Canada's running community are calling for changes to be made to empower and protect female athletes following allegations of sexual misconduct against one of the country's top track coaches.

On Feb. 8, the Globe and Mail published an investigation into allegations made against Dave Scott-Thomas, who ran the University of Guelph's track and field program for more than 20 years and coached Canadian national teams.

In December, he was dismissed by the university for unprofessional conduct. According to the Globe, former student-athlete Megan Brown alleges Scott-Thomas groomed her for a sexual relationship in 2002, when she was 17 years old.

Scott-Thomas has denied wrongdoing, and none of the allegations made against him have been proven in court.

Still, athletes and experts say the case highlights a need for cultural change in the athletic community, as well as a structural change in how allegations of misconduct are handled.

Krista DuChene, a marathoner who was part of Canada's 2016 Olympic team, says the close-knit running community feels "gutted." DuChene was coached by Scott-Thomas following her Olympic bid, although she says she had not heard about Brown's allegations until recently.

"Unfortunately, looking at the details, it looks like a lot of people failed, and institutions failed, and people are looking for answers," DuChene told The Current's host Matt Galloway.

Long-distance runner Rachel Cliff, who trained under Scott-Thomas at the University of Guelph for six years, says her own experiences in the program echoes the culture described by the Globe, one fuelled by a "win-at-all-costs" mentality that took a toll on athletes' mental and physical health.

Long-distance runner Rachel Cliff, who trained under Scott-Thomas at the University of Guelph for six years, says her own experiences in the program echoes the culture described by the Globe, one fuelled by a 'win-at-all-costs' mentality that took a toll on athletes. (Kevin Light/CBC)

"Nothing as extreme or as awful as what Megan's story was, but I think that there was, within the women's team, kind of some feelings that maybe it wasn't the best fit for all of us," Cliff said. "I think there was a feeling that maybe it wasn't the most positive environment."

Calls for accountability

DuChene and Cliff, who are both currently hoping to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, want to see the institutions involved — including the University of Guelph and Athletics Canada, the national body governing track and field — held accountable. 

A Globe and Mail story published on Feb. 8 detailed an alleged affair between former University of Guelph track and field coach Dave Scott-Thomas, pictured, and former student-athlete Megan Brown. (Submitted by the University of Guelph)

"Everyone has to step up and take their spot in saying that they made a mistake, and with that comes consequences," DuChene said. "That's how change will happen, is when there's consequences to big mistakes." 

Athletics Canada, meanwhile, insists that it is working to find ways to prevent similar scenarios from happening in the future.

Bill MacMackin, board chair of Athletics Canada, says the organization is conducting an investigation into the allegations against Scott-Thomas, as well as an internal review into how the situation was handled. 

According to the Globe, complaints made by Brown's father to officials in 2006 went largely ignored for years, as Scott-Thomas's coaching career soared. 

MacMackin says he doesn't believe that the current leadership would have handled a case like this in the same way, pointing to changes introduced over the past two years. These include mandatory support training for coaches and officials, increased powers for commissioners to investigate conduct complaints and new opportunities for whistleblower provisions.

"I think a lot of it's also the culture of a safe place for athletes to report and feel comfortable … to feel confident that they can come forward and call out this behaviour again and make sure it doesn't happen," MacMackin said.

A 'win-at-all-costs' mentality

Others, however, are calling for a larger structural change in how conduct complaints are handled.

Former Olympian Bruce Kidd, who is a professor at the University of Toronto's faculty of kinesiology and physical education, wants to see an independent mechanism to handle allegations of misconduct across all sports in Canada.

Canadian Bruce Kidd, pictured crossing the finish line to win a race in Philadelphia in this 1963, says an independent mechanism is needed to keep sports safe for all athletes. (The Canadian Press)

He says that allowing sport-specific regulatory bodies, like Athletics Canada, to do this themselves has not worked.

"There's still conflict of interest or an apparent conflict of interest because of that control, and it gives very few people the assurance that athletes will really be protected," Kidd said. 

He says there's a call across Canada from athletes, researchers and several [national sports organizations] for "a completely independent mechanism to protect athletes, to take complaints through every stage and to create a culture of safer sport."

He points to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which administers the national anti-doping program, as well as the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, as examples of independent mechanisms that were created to make sport safer.

He says he's "puzzled" as to why politicians have been so reluctant to establish an independent mechanism for conduct complaints, and suspects that the win-at-all-costs mentality that has dominated Canadian athletics culture since the successes of Own the Podium and the Vancouver 2010 Games may have something to do with it. 

We have to keep women in sport. We have to be strong and stand up.- Krista DuChene, former Olympic runner

"The only thing I can come up with is that they're getting a pushback from those who fear that such a system would take away from winning," Kidd said.

For now, athletes like DuChene, who is now a coach herself, hopes that allegations like the ones against Scott-Thomas don't discourage parents from letting their daughters participate in sports.

"We have to keep women in sport. We have to be strong and stand up. And we can't shy away from something like this. Of course, we want to protect our children, but we have to be out there and respect ourselves and demand more."

Written by Althea Manasan. Produced by Idella Sturino.