Vancouver Sun

Ski­ing’s sex scan­dal forces a reck­on­ing


- Graeme hamil­ton in Mon­treal Sports · Crime · Human Rights · Discrimination · Sexual Abuse · Society · Violence and Abuse · Pyeongchang County · South Korea · Pyongyang · Quebec · Findlay, OH · United States of America · University of Toronto · Toronto · Alpine Canada · Bertrand · Martha Hall Findlay · Universite Laval · Laval · Speed Skating Canada

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.


 ??  ?? The for­mer Alpine Canada women’s coach was sen­tenced to 12 years in prison for the sex­ual as­sault of nine skiers in his charge in the 1990s. “Every­one feels for the women,” said Martha Hall Find­lay, chair of the Alpine Canada board.
The for­mer Alpine Canada women’s coach was sen­tenced to 12 years in prison for the sex­ual as­sault of nine skiers in his charge in the 1990s. “Every­one feels for the women,” said Martha Hall Find­lay, chair of the Alpine Canada board.

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