Canada’s sport system is rife with conflicts of interest and a lack of accountability, including insufficient punishment for coaches when abuse happens, a parliamentary committee heard Thursday in emotional testimony from two top athletes.
Myriam Da Silva Rondeau, an Olympic boxer, and Ciara McCormack, a former professional soccer player, told MPs on the standing committee on the status of women that a judicial inquiry is needed to examine the structures that oversee sport in the country.
“I am here today to say enough is enough, the problem is not single bad-apple coaches,” Ms. McCormack said. “It is a system that empowers abusers, harms and silences victims with no way to safely report outside of the system, and offers no consequence to sport leaders who enable abuse.”
Ms. McCormack spoke out about her abuse on a blog posting in 2019, which eventually led to criminal charges against Bob Birarda, a former Team Canada and Vancouver Whitecaps women’s soccer coach. He was sentenced this month to two years in prison for sexual assault against teenage players in British Columbia.
However, Ms. McCormack said she and other athletes tried many times to complain, including asking more than 30 times for the coach to be removed, but the system governing soccer protected itself.
“If somebody had stepped up in 2008 and done the right thing, this wouldn’t have gone on as long as it did,” Ms. McCormack said. “Considering the insanity, lengths and harms of what we had to go through to get a now-convicted sex offender off the field, the question I continually ask myself is how many more Birardas are there out there in this flawed system? How many more athletes are still being harmed?”
Issues of abuse in sport have been at the forefront in Canada for the past few years as a growing number of athletes – from soccer and boxing, to gymnastics, artistic swimming, bobsleigh, skeleton and rugby – calls for the government to take a closer look at power imbalances and accountability within the system.
Ms. Da Silva Rondeau, who competed for Canada at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, said she was powerless to complain when a coach threatened she could lose some of her funding if she did not leave her job as a teacher to train full time, rather than wait until the end of the school year.
“When athletes mention that there are no systems in place to protect them, it’s not the number of resources or programs that are being talked about,” Ms. Da Silva Rondeau said. “It is the action of holding people accountable and the power to enforce consequences. That’s what is non-existent in the Canadian sport system.”
The athletes told MPs the government needs to examine serious conflicts of interest inside Canadian sport. They pointed to situations where private, for-profit companies present themselves as independent, talking to athletes about abuse complaints, but are also working for the National Sports Organizations (NSOs) at the same time.
Ms. McCormack said Toronto-based company Sport Law served as Soccer Canada’s legal counsel while at the same time was hired to run its whistle-blower hotline for abuse, meaning athletes were forced to come forward to a company working for the organization.
In another situation, soccer players were approached by an Ottawa firm called ITP Sport to share private information about their complaints, “under the idea that the person approaching them is someone that is sympathetic to their situation,” Ms. McCormack said. “And then they have found months later, weeks later, that that organization is now representing and working with the NSO.”
In a bid to give athletes an independent mechanism for complaints, the federal government created the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, which began operating this year. All of Canada’s more than 60 NSOs are required to sign onto the program by next year or lose their funding.
For years, athlete complaints were handled by NSOs, which then had the power to hire their own investigators to examine the problem. When Canadian artistic swimmers raised allegations of maltreatment two years ago, including being forced into dangerous eating disorders, those complaints were handled internally. Canada Artistic Swimming hired outside firms, including ITP Sport, to conduct a culture review, but limited how much it could investigate.
But the new OSIC office has also been criticized for conflicts of interest. When the standing committee held its first set of hearings to examine the sport system last month, former gymnast Amelia Cline questioned how members of NSOs could also sit on its board.
Ms. Cline, who has spoken out about abuse in her sport, said the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, which oversees the new OSIC office, appointed a board member this year who also sat on the board of Gymnastics Canada. “How does any gymnast have any trust in an office that is being overseen by the very people that would need to be investigated,” Ms. Cline said.
Though OSIC can handle independent complaints, Ms. Cline and others have also questioned how effective it can be in stopping abuse since it doesn’t have the power to subpoena individuals or to enforce punishment on sports organizations.
Ms. Da Silva Rondeau said OSIC can only hear certain types of complaints, such as physical or sexual abuse allegations. However, the threats she faced of losing her funding are not something the new office is, so far, mandated to handle. “I wanted to report the event because this type of action is very frequent in sports federations. Unfortunately it is not admissible and still won’t be in the new OSIC system,” she said.
Lorraine Lafreniere, CEO of the Coaching Association of Canada, told the hearing there should also be a registry of offenders in Canada so coaches can’t simply move cities or clubs if they are found guilty of wrongdoing.
Former gymnast Kim Shore called for a judicial inquiry when the committee met last month. That call was echoed Thursday by Ms. Lafreniere and the two athletes, who said a broader investigation into Canadian sport is needed.
“In sport today there is talk of rebuilding the system, but without a third-party judicial inquiry to hold accountable the people who perpetuate the current abuse and culture, nothing will change,” Ms. Da Silva Rondeau said.