CBC Explains

Why Canada's Kaillie Humphries is suing to compete for the U.S.

Here’s the background and new info you need to understand why a two-time Olympic bobsleigh champion is trying to force her way off the Canadian team to join the U.S.

The 2-time Olympic bobsleigh champ wants out — and she's running out of time

Despite insisting that "I love this country!" Kaillie Humphries feels she has no choice but to leave the Canadian team. (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

One of Canada's top Olympians is suing to compete for the United States. 

Here's the background and new info you need to understand why bobsleigh star Kaillie Humphries is trying to force her way off the Canadian team to join the U.S.

Who is Kaillie Humphries?

The 34-year-old bobsleigh pilot from Calgary is one of Canada's most accomplished Olympic athletes — and one of its most outspoken.

Along with former brakewoman Heather Moyse, Humphries won back-to-back Olympic gold medals in women's bobsleigh in 2010 and 2014. After Moyse left the sport, Humphries added a bronze in 2018 with new teammate Phylicia George. Humphries also won consecutive world championships in 2012 and '13, and World Cup season titles in 2013, '14 and '16. She captured the Lou Marsh Trophy for Canadian athlete of the year in 2014.

Humphries has also made headlines for fighting for gender equality in her sport. There are two kinds of bobsleigh races: two-man and four-man (those are the official names, so excuse the gender non-neutrality). But there's a separate women's competition only in the two-man.

After winning her second consecutive Olympic gold in 2014, Humphries stepped up her campaign to get bobsleigh's world governing body to add a four-man event for women. It didn't work (the governing body said there weren't enough women in the sport to justify it) but a compromise was reached: women would be allowed to compete alongside the men in the four-man, which was declared gender-neutral.

Humphries admitted she would need three men in her sled in order to be competitive (races start with everyone pushing the sled before hopping in, so maximum power is key) and she found three Canadian men to join her sled. In November 2014, Humphries and American Elana Meyers Taylor became the first women to compete in a four-man event. It was a North American Cup race, which is one level below the World Cup. Both women went on to compete in World Cup four-man races that season. In six starts, Humphries' best finish was 14th. She continued to compete in the four-man for two more seasons but never matched that result.

After her Olympic bronze in 2018, Humphries took last season off, saying she wanted to "build a strong foundation for my marriage" shortly after getting engaged. She hasn't competed since.

Humphries won a boatload of Olympic, world and World Cup titles for the Canadian team, but the relationship has soured. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Why does she want to leave the Canadian bobsleigh team?

Humphries has clashed with Bobsleigh Canada for years — and things have taken a turn for the worse more recently.

Back in 2014-2015, bobsleigh's world governing body granted Canada an additional sled for World Cup four-man races in order to accommodate Humphries. But this didn't sit well with some Canadian athletes and officials — a set of people she hasn't always seemed to get along with. Some felt she shouldn't be allowed to skip the line ahead of men with faster times. Though Humphries was good enough to meet the world governing body's qualifying times for four-man World Cup competition, she didn't meet Bobsleigh Canada's own (tougher) standards. Ultimately, she kept competing in the four-man through the 2016-17 season. During her three seasons doing double duty, she finished second, first and second in the women's World Cup chase.

A few months after announcing she would sit out the 2018-19 season, Humphries revealed that she had filed a harassment complaint with Bobsleigh Canada before the season. As per its policy, the federation said it had "forwarded the complaint to an independent investigator." Both sides declined to reveal details of the harassment complaint while the investigation was ongoing — which it still is.

But we learned more Friday after CBC Sports' Devin Heroux broke the story that Humphries made the surprising move of suing Bobsleigh Canada for her release from the team. In a statement affirming the move, Humphries said "I was in a position where my workplace environment was impaired and I couldn't compete… I have done everything I can but cannot return to a work environment that I do not believe is safe."

In court documents for the lawsuit asking for her release, Humphries alleges Bobsleigh Canada head coach Todd Hays verbally, emotionally and mentally abused her during her final season with the program. This, she says, breached the federation's contract relating to athlete and coach code of conduct. Bobsleigh Canada again said it will not comment on the case, citing privacy rules, until the investigation is done.

The harassment allegation is a key difference between Humphries' case and those of other high-profile Canadian athletes who chose to start representing another country — tennis player Greg Rusedski and boxer Lennox Lewis switching to Great Britain, for example. Also, those two men chose to stop identifying as Canadian so they could compete as Brits instead. Humphries said in her statement that she doesn't want to turn her back on the country, but she feels she's no longer wanted on the Canadian team. "I want to be clear that I am not choosing to leave Canada," she said. "I love this country!"

Why the U.S.?

Humphries' fiancé is a former bobsledder on the American team. They're getting married Saturday in San Diego. That will allow her to represent the U.S in most international competitions — provided the Canadian team releases her first.

The American team, which has been strong in recent years but right now lacks depth behind the two-time world champ Meyers Taylor, seems open to welcoming Humphries. "If an athlete meets our eligibility requirements and wants to represent the USA in bobsled or skeleton, we'll give them a shot," the U.S. federation said in a statement. "Kaillie is a great athlete and if she gets released from Canada and earns her way into the U.S. team, we'll gladly treat her like any other USABS athlete." They've also invited her to next compete in next week's national push competition as a guest.

Why is Humphries suing?

Because Bobsleigh Canada hasn't yet granted her the release she says she asked for several weeks ago, and she's running out of time. International rules say she needs that release by Sept. 30 in order to compete for the U.S. this season. Humphries is hoping the lawsuit will force the Canadian federation's hand.

The new World Cup season starts in late November, and the U.S. team plans to start its on-ice training camp in a few weeks if the weather allows.

Will this work? 

We'll find out. But it's hard to see how anyone is served by Humphries being kept under the Canadian team's control. And the lawsuit makes this situation even more of a headache for Bobsleigh Canada.

Beyond getting permission to join the American team in time for this season, Humphries' ultimate goal is to compete at the next Winter Olympics, which are in 2022 in Beijing. To do that, she'll have to clear a few hurdles.

Compared to sports' world governing bodies, the Olympics have stronger rules for athletes who want to compete for a different country. For one, three years have to have passed since the last time they competed for their former country. Humphries should be OK there — her last official race for Canada came at the 2018 Olympics.

The Olympic charter also says you must be a "national" of the country you're representing. Different countries have different criteria for who they consider a national, but the U.S. Olympic Committee allows only American citizens to compete for the country in the Olympics. Humphries doesn't become an American citizen just by marrying an American. But she can apply right away for a green card (what we call a permanent resident card in Canada). Normally, she'd have to wait three years after that to apply for citizenship. Humphries' status as an Olympic-level athlete might help her fast-track that process. But she's not exactly a household name in the States, nor is she the gold-medal favourite she was a few years back.

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