COC can 'play important role' in keeping athletes safe from sexual abuse: CEO

In a wide-ranging interview with CBC Sports, Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker says a solution must be found to keep athletes in Canada safe from sexual abuse and other mistreatment.

'It really does call upon all of the leaders in Canadian sport to do better,' says David Shoemaker

Finding a solution to keep Canadian athletes safe from sexual abuse and other mistreatment will be the Canadian Olympic Committee's 'defining moment' as leaders in sport," according to its CEO and secretary general David Shoemaker. (Submitted by Canadian Olympic Committee)

Its importance far outweighs an achievement on the field of play, including how Canada fares at the Pan Am Games in July or at next year's Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

"I think it'll be our defining moment as leaders in sport," says Canadian Olympic Committee CEO and secretary general David Shoemaker.

The Ottawa native understands the challenge facing the country's largest sporting organization as it pertains to protecting Canadian athletes from sexual abuse and other mistreatment that has dominated headlines in recent months.

"It really does call upon all of the leaders in Canadian sport to do better, to find a harmonized, collective solution," says Shoemaker, who chairs a working group on safe sport he formed shortly after joining the COC on Jan. 7.

Impressive credentials

He relocated his wife Jennifer and three children to Toronto after serving as NBA China's CEO and Women's Tennis Association president after practising law in New York for seven years.

A University of Western Ontario grad, Shoemaker spoke to CBC Sports about the COC's involvement in helping victims of sex abuse, the Caster Semenya testosterone verdict and his thoughts on NBA star Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors' playoff performance.

CBC Sports: What support can the COC provide victims of sex abuse, psychological abuse and neglect? What initiatives are you taking?

David Shoemaker: We need to help find smart and common solutions so we can feel good about providing a safe place for all athletes to play and compete. We've trained investigators, sponsored and financed athlete summits around this topic.

I think we can play an important role around education and awareness, telling children, pre-teens and teens who are athletes that there are safe places they can go to tell people, without judgment and free of implications for them. I think we can do a better job at getting kids at the grassroots level to think like Olympians, with Olympic values and with that level of fervour, teamwork and sportsmanship.

CBC Sports: What challenges do you face as CEO of the COC?

DS: In so many ways, the challenges are maintaining the incredible momentum around Team Canada. When you look at the record-setting performances in Pyeongchang and Rio, part of the challenge is to say we're serious about Olympic performance, getting to the top of the podium and we want to do better, even though it's hard to think of doing better.

'It's a highly charged and polarizing issue'

CBC Sports: What is your take on the IAAF's new testosterone testing rules and dominant South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya's lost appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against rules designed to decrease high levels in female runners?

DS: It's a highly charged and polarizing issue. I think the Court of Arbitration for Sport described it as the most pivotal case in its history. How would I deal with this if Caster Semenya were a Canadian athlete? We would need to respect and observe the decision of the sport tribunal because that's part of the rules of the games we play.

At the same time, we would encourage someone like Caster Semenya to speak her mind and be outspoken. We very much stand for respect as it's an important Canadian Olympic value and are strong proponents of diversity and inclusion.

Caster Semenya of South Africa clocked one minute 54.98 seconds on May 3 to win the women’s 800 metres at the Diamond League season opener in Qatar, her final race before new testosterone rules takes effect in an attempt to decrease naturally high levels in some female runners. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

CBC Sports: What experiences/factors in your career helped you conclude this is your dream job?

DS: As a Canadian growing up in an athletic family — my mother and grandfather were elite-level tennis players — being able to return to Canada and work for Team Canada allows me to feel I can combine everything I've done over the course of a nearly 20-year career in sport and try to put more and more Canadians on the podium on the international stage. That, to me, is the dream come true.

CBC Sports: Was the result of the Calgary plebiscite in November — 54.9 per cent of more than 300,000 people to cast ballots voted against a 2026 Winter Olympic bid — a sore spot for you?

DS: We've tried to channel all of what happened into how we can create a better bid in the future. When we ask Olympians about a defining moment in their career, they'll all point to moments of adversity, and I think we have to look at Calgary 2026 the same way. In some ways, we failed the city of Calgary collectively. All the stakeholders in the Olympic Games could have done a better job at telling Calgarians about the benefits of hosting the Olympics.

IOC calls for flexibility with bid cities

CBC Sports: Toronto spent millions of dollars on two lost Olympic bids and there seems to be a trend of cities that have previously hosted a Games having an edge. Are we seeing a shift in the Olympic model and Toronto-like bids are a thing of the past?

DS: We're definitely seeing a shift in the model. The IOC has said there needs to be more openness and flexibility around what a bid city, or cities, could look like. We're seeing more infrastructure flexibility. I think the Stockholm bid involves the alpine events taking place a fairly long flight from Sweden.

That, I think, is going to allow more economically viable and responsible bids to take place and that's great news for Canadians. I think it will allow us to consider places that haven't hosted before or regions that could potentially host.

'Soft spot' for Kawhi Leonard

CBC Sports: What is your take on the Toronto Raptors/Philadelphia 76ers Eastern Conference semifinal? And what do you make of the dominance of Toronto forward Kawhi Leonard?

DS: This is a competitive series. I think we [saw] four different Toronto teams in [the first] four games and I think we [saw] four different Philly teams in four games. The players seem invincible at points and seem quite human the next time. I think that's what makes sports so great.

I have a soft spot for Kawhi. He job shadowed me two summers ago in China, so I've come to like and appreciate him off the court. Kawhi is a smart, inquisitive, likeable, fun guy to be around.

Shoemaker has a soft spot for Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, right, who has been dominate in the team’s playoff series against Philadelphia. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)


Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc


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