The Current

Lives ruined by abuse in sports made worse by fear of retaliation, athletes say

For years, Canadian athletes were afraid to raise their voices about abuse in the governing bodies. But that's no longer the case — and the federal government is listening.

'They can’t seek justice, they aren’t believed, they’re silenced in many cases,' says Olympic gold medallist

Since March 2022, more than 1,000 athletes, including gymnasts, have penned open letters detailing abuse and toxic environments — and asking for a third-party investigations. (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)

From as young as two years old, Amelia Cline loved gymnastics. But her experience with the sport changed for the worst when new coaches joined her gym.

"Unfortunately, for about the last three years of my career, I was in a gym where we had coaches who were quite verbally, psychologically and physically abusive," she told The Current.

Despite her successes, the abuse had become too much for the young Cline to handle — she was done with the sport by the age of 13.

"While I still continued to have success in the sport, the experience became very negative and quite harmful," she said.

Cline's story isn't unique in gymnastics — or in Canadian sports. Since March, more than 1,000 Canadian athletes have called for third-party independent investigations into athlete abuse in sports.

It includes athletes represented by Gymnasts for Change Canada, a group that has grown from an original 70 to hundreds of current and retired athletes.

"For almost a decade, the fear of retribution has prevented us and scores of other athletes from speaking out," said the original March 28 open letter. "However, we can no longer sit in silence."

Former gymnast Kim Shore told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue that when she was on Gymnastics Canada's board of directors, she dealt with many stories involving athlete abuse at various levels of the sport.

"I became a repository for hundreds of stories — athletes and parents contacting me, and then, not really having anywhere to go to find effective justice or measures to stop what was happening," she said.

Shore, who has since left Gymnastics Canada's board of directors, said the system has "failed" athletes. 

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Cline, who has since filed a proposed class-action lawsuit — along with other former gymnasts — against Gymnastics Canada and six provincial federations, said these measures are all about assisting survivors while also holding those institutions accountable for abuse.

"That's a very important step, from our perspective, in order to understand exactly why these abuses had happened and how to stop them," she said.

'Fear of retaliation'

Among the athletes who voiced their concerns in March were dozens of bobsled and skeleton athletes. They sent an open letter accusing Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton of fostering a toxic environment, and harassment and systemic racism, among other complaints.

Neville Wright, a three-time Olympian bobsledder who recently came out of retirement, said he's spoken to over 40 other athletes about their experiences. They detailed being denied therapy and being forced to test, train and compete while injured. 

"Right now, we're doing our best to try to change that, but it just seems that the organization is fixed on keeping control and disregarding the complaints of the athletes," he told Duncan McCue. 

Entire lives are destroyed from this, and then they're revictimized because they can't come forward, they can't seek justice, they aren't believed, they're silenced in many cases.-Jennifer Heil, Canadian freestyle skier

Wright said systemic issues of abuse and neglect are so normalized in sports that athletes are afraid to speak up for "fear of retaliation."

"There's so much accountability on us when it comes to our athlete agreement code of conduct, Sport Canada carding, doping, filling out [Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport] forms and so forth," he said.

"But then you have these individuals — these coaches and administrative staff and so forth — where they're not held to the same accountability measures."

Jennifer Heil, an Olympic gold medallist who skied with Canada's freestyle team for nearly a decade, said there's a huge power imbalance between the athletes and the administrative staff — and a legitimate fear of losing one's career for bringing complaints forward.

"It's most dangerous to come forward when you're in a team sport because coaches have a lot of discretion as to who plays on the team and who's a part of the championships," she said.

Heil, who helped design and develop British Columbia's current safe sport system, said this often has dire consequences on athletes' mental health.

"Entire lives are destroyed from this, and then they're revictimized because they can't come forward, they can't seek justice, they aren't believed, they're silenced in many cases," she said. 

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Shore said the Canadian sports system is "riddled" with leaders who have enabled unsafe environments in secrecy for many years. Yet, there's a reluctance for adults to call other adults out.

"If there are individuals, especially leaders within the system, who are racist or … they've made mistakes that they're actively working to cover up, how can our sports system be improved?" 

Taking responsibility

Since thousands of athletes raised their voices about abuse and harassment within Canada's sports systems, the federal government has taken steps to address their concerns.

Earlier this week, Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge announced that Hockey Canada's access to public funds would be immediately frozen in response to an alleged sexual assault and subsequent out-of-court settlement.

St-Onge told reporters in Ottawa that Hockey Canada will only have funding restored once it discloses recommendations contained in an incomplete report by a third-party law firm hired to investigate the alleged incident four years ago.

On top of that, Hockey Canada must also become a signatory to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, a new government agency that can independently investigate abuse complaints and levy sanctions.

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This came days after Sarah-Ève Pelletier, a lawyer and former artistic swimmer, started receiving and addressing complaints of abuse and harassment in sport as Canada's first sport integrity commissioner.

Pelletier said on Tuesday that it's heartbreaking to hear all of these stories of abuse in sports.

"I don't know what else we need as a sport and as a community in terms of [a] wakeup call," she said.

"The athletes are using their collective voice, are being extremely brave. But I think it's for all of us to be responsible and for all of us to take action." 

The commissioner's ability to gain athletes' trust will be 100 per cent contingent on how independent from the sport they actually are.-Kim Shore, former gymnast

According to Pelletier, there are several ways her office can play a part in moving the agenda forward, such as initiating or looking into complaints against individuals that are signatories to their program. 

"When we are looking into those complaints, we will have the possibility to launch a formal investigation," she said.

"Where a finding of violation is being confirmed, there would be a possibility to recommend sanctions and … impose sanctions on individuals."

As for addressing systemic issues, Pelletier said her office "will have the ability to launch a sport environment assessment."

"The goal is to formulate recommendations that will be there to improve the sport environment for current and future participants," she said.

Lawyer and former artistic swimmer Sarah-Eve Pelletier opened shop as Canada's first sport integrity commissioner in May. (Sarah-Eve Pelletier/LinkedIn)

Independence is key

Shore said she is encouraged by the measures Pelletier's office is implementing. But there's still a ways to go before the OSIC, which will operate within the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, earns athletes' full trust.

"The commissioner's ability to gain athletes' trust will be 100 per cent contingent on how independent from the sport they actually are, both real and perceived," she said. "So they need to be able to eliminate all conflicts of interest."

Pelletier understands there may be concerns about the office's independence.

"We take very great care to ensure that that independence is maintained at every possible corner, from the way the system is designed to the boundaries that we set and the roles that each of the actors and decision-makers and the system play," she said.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Paul MacInnis and Meli Gumus.

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