Scales should be banned from children’s gyms. Parents must be allowed to watch. Rules of acceptable behavior should be posted on gym walls with a toll-free line to report violations.
They may seem like basic safety precautions for children in sport, but they don’t exist on a large scale in Canada. Amid what Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge called a safe sport “crisis”, many current and former athletes say the country has long been waiting for a cultural overhaul.
More than 1,000 gymnastics, boxing and bobsleigh/skeleton athletes 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, saying the organizations created a culture and environment conducive to abuse and failed to protect the mostly underage athletes in their care.
St-Onge said he had received complaints of abuse, mistreatment or embezzlement against at least eight national teams, including rugby and rowing.
The outpouring of stories sparked conversations, shared experiences, and suggested fixes.
Ciara McCormack is the soccer player who was the first to publicly accuse Canadian Under-20 coach Bob Birarda of inappropriate behaviour; he pleaded guilty in February to four sex offenses involving four different people.
She said parents “need to have access to their children’s training environments”. Few gym facilities allow parents to watch.
McCormack also thinks that non-disclosure agreements involving misconduct should be eliminated and that educating athletes and parents about what abuse looks like and how to report violations is mandatory. She also suggested an athlete-led organization with a hotline and disciplinary procedures – similar to those for teachers or doctors – where misconduct is recorded and accessed.
“(National sports organizations) have taken advantage of all the power and all the resources, which has caused immense harm, and I think it is crucial that athletes are given power, resources and a voice in the system. from kids as rec athletes to national team athletes,” McCormack told The Canadian Press. “It’s long overdue.”
Kim Shore, a former gymnast and mother of a former gymnast, said she would like to see scales banned from gyms. Gymnasts said public weigh-ins left them with serious emotional scars years later around body image.
She also suggested an offender registry. Several national sport organizations, including Skate Canada and Athletics Canada, have suspended coaches and athletes listed on their websites.
But there are many holes, including the inability to follow the coaches at the grassroots or even at the provincial level. Coaches who are suspended or allowed to quietly leave one club, province or national team can often simply move on to another – or even another sport.
In her proposed 32-page class action lawsuit, Cline alleges that she suffered numerous injuries during training, including back and neck injuries, and broken wrists, hands, fingers and toes. She alleged that her trainer, Vladimir Lashin, stretched her hamstrings too much to the point of ripping them out of her pelvis.
Cline told The Canadian Press that staff at BC Children’s Hospital know her by name.
“It’s a bit telling when they say, ‘Oh, it’s you again, you’re back,'” said Cline, who left the sport aged 14 and is now 32.
Lashin did not respond to a request for comment. He coached Canada’s National Team for the Athens Olympics in 2004. Gymnastics Canada named 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 process individual complaints of violations of the University Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Abuse in Sport.