Scales should be banned from children’s gyms. Parents should be permitted to watch. Rules of acceptable behavior should be posted on gym walls with a toll-free line to report violations.
They may sound like basic safety precautions for children in sport, but they don’t exist on a blanket scale in Canada. Amid what Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge has called a safe sport “crisis,” many current and former athletes say the country is long overdue for a cultural overhaul.
More than 1,000 athletes from gymnastics, boxing and bobsled/skeleton have called for independent investigations into their sports in recent weeks, and former gymnast Amelia Cline filed a proposed class-action lawsuit last week against Gymnastics Canada and six provincial federations.
The plaintiffs allege abuse dating back to 1978, claiming the organizations created a culture and environment where the abuse could occur and failed to protect the athletes, most of them minors, in their care.
St-Onge has said she’s received complaints about abuse, maltreatment or misappropriation of funds leveled against at least eight national teams, including rugby and rowing.
The outpouring of stories has prompted conversations, shared experiences and suggestions for fixes.
Ciara McCormack was the soccer player who first publicly accused Canada’s under-20 women’s coach Bob Birarda of inappropriate behavior; he pleaded guilty in February to four sexual offenses involving four different people.
She said parents “have to have access to their children’s training environments.” Few gymnastics facilities allow parents to watch.
McCormack also believes nondisclosure agreements involving misconduct should be eliminated, and making it mandatory to educate athletes and parents about what abuse looks like and how to report infractions. She also suggested an athlete-led organization with a hotline and disciplinary procedures — similar to that of teachers or medical practitioners — where cases of misconduct are recorded and accessible.
“(National sport organizations) have taken advantage of having all the power and all the resources with the result being an immense amount of harm, and I think its crucial that athletes are given power, resources and a voice in the system from children as rec athletes all the way up to national team athletes,” McCormack told The Canadian Press. “It’s long overdue.”
Kim Shore, a former gymnast and mom of a former gymnast, said she’d like to see bathroom scales banned from gyms. Gymnasts have said the public weigh-ins have left them with serious emotional scars years later around body image.
She also suggested an offenders registry. Several national sport organizations, including Skate Canada and Athletics Canada, have suspended coaches and athletes listed on their websites.
But there’s plenty of holes, including the inability to track coaches at the grassroots or even the provincial level. Coaches who are suspended or permitted to leave quietly from a club, province or national team can often simply move to another — or even another sport.
In her 32-page proposed class-action lawsuit, Cline alleges that she suffered numerous injuries during training, including back and neck injuries, and fractures in her wrist, hand, fingers and toes. She alleged her coach, Vladimir Lashin, overstretched her hamstring to the point it tore away from her pelvis.
Cline told The Canadian Press that staff at BC Children’s Hospital knew her by name.
“It’s kind of telling when they say, `Oh, it’s you again, you’re back,`” said Cline, who quit the sport at age 14 and is now 32.
Lashin did not respond to a request for comment. I have coached Canada’s national team for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Gymnastics Canada appointed him national coach and high-performance director of the women’s artistic program in 2009. He resigned in 2010.
Sport Canada announced this week that its new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC) will be operational as of June 20. The office will receive and address individual complaints of violations of the University Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport.