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Athletes call for sport culture overhaul in Canada amid allegations of abuse

Scales should be banned from children's gyms. Parents should be permitted to watch. Rules of acceptable behaviour should be posted on gym walls with a toll-free line to report violations.
Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. Canada's office for reporting abuse and harassment in sport will begin operations on June 20.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Scales should be banned from children's gyms. Parents should be permitted to watch. Rules of acceptable behaviour should be posted on gym walls with a toll-free line to report violations.

They may sound like basic safety precautions around 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 sport culture overhaul.

More than a 1,000 athletes from gymnastics, boxing and bobsled/skeleton have called for independent investigations into their sports in recent weeks, and last week former gymnast Amelia Cline filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against Gymnastics Canada and six provincial federations. 

The proposed class of plaintiffs allege abuse dating back to 1978, and claim 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.

One of the class members told The Canadian Press she'd like the posting of proper behaviour, with a call-in number, made mandatory in gyms. 

"A lot of these rules sound like common sense, (but) it's frightening the extent to which common sense doesn't seem to permeate the gymnastics culture," said the retired gymnast, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

St-Onge has said in her first five months as sport minister, she's received complaints about abuse, maltreatment or misappropriation of funds levelled against at least eight national teams, including rugby and rowing. 

The outpouring of heartbreaking stories has prompted much conversation, around shared experiences and suggestions for fixes. 

Ciara McCormack, the soccer player who first publicly accused Canada's under-20 women's coach Bob Birarda of inappropriate behaviour, said parents "have to have access to their children's training environments."

Few gymnastics facilities permit parents to watch.

McCormack also believes non-disclosure agreements involving misconduct should be eliminated, and education made mandatory for 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."

Birarda, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in B.C. Provincial Court in February to four sexual offences involving four different people.

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 in lists, 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, a province or a national team, can often simply move to another. Or even another sport.

Shore said an international database would seem like a pipe dream to many in the sport world, but added that even a provincial and national database would be a "massive step forward." 

She suggested parents do Google searches on prospective coaches, because there's often chatter about questionable behaviour on websites like Reddit. 

"You're tapping into what I think is really our biggest problem in Canada, and that is that we take no action against enablers and institutions who are complicit to enabling further abuse," said Shore, a former member of Gymnastics Canada's board of directors.

"Sport has failed athletes because it tries to operate above the law, and sometimes even with their own laws. So there’s very little oversight and accountability," she added.

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, resulting in an avulsion fracture. 

Cline told The Canadian Press that she was a frequent visitor to B.C. Children's Hospital to the point that staff knew her by name.

"It's kind of telling when they say, 'Oh, it's you again, you're back,'" said Cline, who's now 32.

Cline quit the sport at age 14, and she and her parents filed a complaint with Gymnastics BC. According to the claim, a harassment officer from Sport B.C. was appointed to investigate, but the Clines were never allowed to see the report.

Instead of receiving punishment, Lashin, who hasn't responded to a request for comment, was named head coach of 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.

Mike Kwiatkowski, a former multi-sport athlete and a graduate of the International Olympic Academy's Masters program, said parents should view lack of transparency as a red flag.

"What's' the reason for the actions of an organization to provide barriers?" he said. "Child safeguarding is not just about checking the boxes, it's a responsibility. If there is no transparency or openness, there is a massive problem."

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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press