Skiing’s sex scandal forces a reckoning
ALPINE CANADA ‘CHOSE TO CLOSE ITS EYES’ BUT VOWS TO LEARN FROM MISTAKES
Alpine Canada prefers to make the news when one of its skiers reaches the podium. But heading into the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the organization is balancing medal dreams with the fresh nightmare of a sexual assault scandal that unfolded last year in a Quebec court.
On Dec. 8, a provincial court judge sentenced former Alpine Canada women’s coach Bertrand Charest to 12 years in prison for the sexual assault of nine teenage skiers in his charge in the 1990s. The court heard how over a seven-year period, Charest used his power as coach to enter into sexual relationships with skiers, all but one of whom was under 18. In one instance he arranged for an abortion for a teenage girl he had got pregnant. Charest is “a true monster, a predator,” another victim told the court.
Judge Sylvain Lépine said Charest’s “inexcusable” acts ruined ski careers and psychologically scarred his victims. But he also singled out the failure of Alpine Canada, the national governing body for alpine ski racing, to protect young skiers. “Alpine Canada chose instead to close its eyes, to not believe these young women and to hide the truth,” the judge said.
Martha Hall Findlay, chair of the Alpine Canada board, says the arrest of Charest in 2015 and last year’s criminal trial have led to a real reckoning in the organization. In a statement issued when Charest was sentenced, she hailed the courage of the victims and apologized to them on behalf of Alpine Canada.
When Charest’s actions first became known to Alpine Canada in 1998, he was dismissed in what was publicly presented as a routine coaching change. Years of silence followed. “Instead of being there for the athletes, instead of providing support when these activities were discovered, Alpine Canada put itself first, not the victims. In doing so, Alpine Canada failed them,” Hall Findlay said in her statement. It was only when one of the victims learned that Charest was still teaching children at a Quebec ski resort, nearly 20 years later, that he was brought to justice.
Hall Findlay said the Charest trial sent shock waves through the organization. “Everyone feels for the women. There is no question,” she said in an interview. “But what I hope is that, especially for the young women (on today’s team) ... they actually feel safer, that they feel organizations like Alpine Canada have their backs. If something untoward starts to happen, it’s not going to be tolerated. My hope is that parents also feel that way.”
The abuse of young athletes by coaches and other team personnel is of course not limited to skiing. In the United States, former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was recently sentenced to at least 40 years in prison for the abuse of more than 150 girls and women. Quebec provincial police are investigating gymnastics coach Michel Arsenault over allegations that he assaulted young gymnasts in the 1980s and 1990s, Radio-Canada reported. Speed Skating Canada head coach Mike Crowe was recently placed on leave pending an investigation into allegations he had inappropriate relationships with athletes.
Sylvie Parent, a Université Laval professor of physical education, says a number of factors contribute to abuse, beginning with the amount of time coaches and elite athletes spend together. If the coach is predatory, the power relationship inherent in coaching can make it difficult for an athlete to reject him. The Charest trial heard that victims were afraid that if they refused sex, they would fall out of favour with him and their skiing would suffer. Add in a sporting culture built on self-sacrifice, and it’s a potentially toxic mix.
A 2016 study Parent conducted of 6,450 Quebec teens found that 0.5 per cent reported sexual abuse by a coach, but another 1.2 per cent reported “consensual” sexual contacts with a coach in the previous 12 months. “There is a certain kind of normalization of these relationships, which are sexual assaults under the Criminal Code,” Parent said.
Since the Charest case became public, Alpine Canada has moved to protect athletes. It has introduced a zero-tolerance policy on sexual relationships between coaches and skiers, regardless of the skier’s age and whether it is consensual. “In a team environment, these kind of relationships also have negative effects on other athletes,” Hall Findlay said. “There’s a power relationship, but there’s also a feeling of, ‘I’m not one of the chosen ones and I’m not getting the coaching.’ ”
Hall Findlay, a former ski racer and coach who twice ran for the federal Liberal leadership, says that with the #MeToo movement, the moment is right for lasting change. Noting that Charest’s pursuit of young skiers was talked about in skiing circles before he was hired by Alpine Canada in 1996, she said Alpine Canada is working on a database that would flag problem coaches beyond those with a criminal record.
The initiative raises issues of privacy and due process. “It’s a bit of a minefield, but we have to err on the side of safety of the young athletes, so our goal is to make that database as comprehensive as possible,” Hall Findlay said. Ideally, the information would be available across sports, because coaches are sometimes active in more than one sport.
Ashley Stirling, a professor in University of Toronto’s faculty of kinesiology and physical education, said Canada needs a third-party body covering all sports — similar to what exists for anti-doping and ethics — that would advocate for athlete welfare and receive complaints of abuse.
“There’s a real code of silence around these issues,” Stirling said. “No matter how willing an organization may be to address these issues, and how proactive they may be in promoting athlete welfare, an athlete still may perceive a risk associated with reporting to his or her organization.” Hall Findlay similarly proposed an ombudsperson who could represent athletes from all sports.
In sentencing Charest, Lépine catalogued the harm he inflicted: his victims reported feelings of shame and guilt, unbearable suffering, stolen adolescence and ruined careers, severe depression and suicidal thoughts, difficulty in romantic relationships.
And in at least one case, a former skier became an overprotective mother, refusing to let her children participate in competitive sports.
Stirling said it would be a shame if that were the message left by a case like Charest’s. While sport is not “this morally good space that is immune from all potential for harm,” she said, neither is it a breeding ground for abuse; statistically, athletes are at no greater risk of sexual abuse than non-athletes.
“The majority of coaches are very well-intentioned and really contribute to the positive development of athletes, both personally and within the sport domain,” Stirling said.
ALPINE CANADA PUT ITSELF FIRST, NOT THE VICTIMS.