Athletes paint a bleak picture of elite Canadian sport

Hundreds of Canadian athletes, both active and retired, are quick to describe the ways in which high-performance sport has let them down.

Whether in Gymnastics Canada, Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, Rugby Canada, Rowing Canada, or even Artistic Swimming Canada, athletes have been calling for many changes over the past few months, from coaches to senior management, asking for better management of harassment or intimidation complaints, and the elimination of opaque selection procedures. .

The surge in cases brought by athletes recently led the Federal Sports Minister, Pascal Saint Ong, to urgently set up an advisory table and invest $16 million from the federal budget for a safe sporting environment.

since St-Onge was appointed to the position in October, and says she has heard of cases of abuse, sexual abuse or misuse of funds in at least eight national sports organizations. Mme St-Onge, who described the situation as a crisis, expects there will be more cases.

questionable organization

Canada has won a large number of medals at the past Summer and Winter Games. Hearing recent complaints from athletes, one wonders what the price is. What is the reason for the erosion of athletes’ confidence in the leaders of the federations?

“Athletes will tell you all the time that they are not just playing their sport for themselves or their coaches. They are also doing it to fund their sport, for its future, explains University of Toronto Emeritus Professor of Sport and Public Policy Bruce Kidd. It is a heavy burden.”

Some point to Own the Podium (ANP), which was founded in 2005 after Vancouver and Whistler won the 2010 Winter Olympics with the express goal of getting more Canadian athletes on the podium.

The National Ports Agency makes recommendations for funding based on the possibility of obtaining medals as well as providing technical expertise to the national sports federations.

The organization is currently putting about $70 million from Canada’s high-performance envelope of more than $200 million with sports federations that have podium athletes at the Olympics, Paralympics, and various world championships. These amounts are used to pay for training and competition costs.

The recommendations of the ANP must be approved by the federal government, but the perception of athletes is that the ANP has some power over decisions made by the federations.

“The mandate of the ANP is to assist those athletes and coaches who want to excel on the global stage,” defended Ann Merklinger, ANP President and Director. The associations are leading their high performance programme. These programs do not belong to the ANP. »

“Every athlete in this country should have the opportunity to train and perform at the level they desire, in a healthy and safe environment,” she added.

But these athletes find that the methods advocated by coaches are not called into question when they win.

“I’ve seen everything from psychological abuse, humiliation, and very harsh criticism, to the point of destroying the self-confidence of these athletes,” said Carla Edwards, a sports psychologist who works as a mental health counselor with top athletes.

They were literally told, ‘You don’t know anything, you are nothing’. I think the athletes in Canada have had enough. »

unhealthy culture

Fear of losing funding can foster an organizational culture where problems are not reported or are prone to blindness. Mr. Edwards.

“The Olympic coaches told me mental health was bad, that there was nothing I could say to them that could change their minds,” she adds. These behaviors are permitted and tolerated. […] It’s the old way. »

Funding for the country’s high performance has been tied to results for a long time. This win at all costs mentality led to Ben Johnson being stripped of his 100m gold medal at the 1988 Games for doping, leading to the Dubin Committee on Doping.

“When these public sessions took place, all the athletes testified to the same thing: the tremendous pressure from Canadian sport — to win or not receive funding — made this culture possible where doping was encouraged or where officials had closed their eyes,” Kidd recalls.

They were literally told: “You know nothing, you are nothing.” I think the athletes in Canada have had enough.

Alison Forsyth, an alpine skier, recalls her bouts of anxiety at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, after she explained that her league would be without money if she didn’t win a medal.

“The fact that someone like me, third in the world, didn’t care about winning the Olympics for her, but because of the funding associated with that victory, is absurd,” she says. Owning the platform only made things worse. »

Forsyth found herself at the center of one of the biggest abuse cases in Canadian sport, when she agreed to be identified as one of coach Bertrand Charest’s alleged victims. Although Charest was found not guilty of the sexual offense charges against her because it occurred outside of Canada, he was found guilty of numerous sexual offenses against some of his teammates, who were teenagers at the time of the events, in the 1990s.

It is now working to implement safe sporting environments, but it is badly needed by sports federations to take responsibility for the mental health of athletes.

Forsyth notes that federations have been slow to adopt mandatory harassment training for athletes, coaches, parents, officials and administrators, adhere to a global code of conduct, as well as create an independent commission to study complaints, and put forward all solutions. Forward from former Sports Secretary, Kirsty Duncan, in 2019.

She warned that adopting these measures does not guarantee the elimination of unhealthy cultures within some unions. Forsyth notes, “Policies do not prevent abuse, and compliance with those policies does not imply change.” We cannot live in a black or white world when safe sports are in a gray area. »

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