Attorney and former competitive swimmer Sarah-Eve Pelletier, Canada’s first sports integrity commissioner, called it a “defining” moment in the development of elite sport in that country. With all due respect, after years of ignoring the concerns of abused athletes, it remains to be seen if her appointment is crucial.
There are many promising signs accompanying Ms Pelletier’s appointment. It has been given legal and administrative independence to conduct investigations and report cases of abuse, a budget of $16 million for its first three years of operation, and most importantly, it assures all state-funded sports organizations – if they wish to continue receiving support – will do so submit to their investigations.
The compulsion Canada and many other countries have to compete and win on the international stage has created a toxic culture in many sports.
For far too long, elite sports have also allowed male coaches to subject female athletes to relentless and pervasive sexual harassment and abuse.
For decades, athletes have been reluctant to raise concerns, knowing that a complaint could end their careers. The Governing Bodies routinely ignored the complaints and cared more about how much success the trainers achieved than how they achieved that success.
Ottawa was finally persuaded to act urgently last March when more than 60 current and former bobsledders went public with complaints about a culture of intimidation and fear. Then nearly 300 gymnasts joined a public campaign calling for an investigation into Gymnastics Canada’s toxic culture.
In April, Federal Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge convened an emergency roundtable with sports federations and groups representing athletes to discuss solutions. Her vow was to expedite the creation of the Commissioner’s Office. On this point, Mrs St-Onge delivered.
The question remains, however, why now? It was hardly the first time allegations like these had gone public.
Athletes in this country need to know that when a relationship with a coach becomes toxic, someone is willing to fight for them.
In 2019, national advocacy group AthletesCAN conducted a survey of more than 1,000 current and former elite athletes. It found that two-thirds of current athletes and three-quarters of former athletes said they had been victims of willful neglect, 60 percent experienced emotional distress, and 20 percent suffered physical harm.
The survey also found that about 20 percent of all respondents were victims of some form of sexual abuse or harassment. And that in many cases the abuse has been going on for decades.
In fact, between 2018 and 2020 alone, nearly a dozen national or top-flight university athletic programs were rocked by allegations of emotional and physical abuse or sexual misconduct.
Federal officials, including Ms St-Onge, may think it’s unfair to question her commitment to keeping the sport safe by reminding her that before we get to this one, she spent years ignoring athletes’ concerns “decisive” moment could come.
But history will show that Ms St-Onge’s “urgent” response is anything but. However, it may still turn out to be the right answer.
Athletes in this country need to know that when a relationship with a coach becomes toxic, someone is willing to fight for them. It is now up to the new Sports Integrity Commissioner to prove to the athletes that she can be that person.