Gymnastics Canada said it is troubled by an open letter issued this week by dozens of past and present athletes who said the organization has failed to properly confront cases of alleged abuse and maltreatment within its ranks.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the organization that oversees gymnastics in Canada defended its record on addressing such problems, but said it will review its practices, acknowledging more can be done to ensure safety for all athletes.
“While we are saddened to learn that dozens of athletes feel that we failed to address these issues, we are committed to continuing to educate and advocate for system-wide reforms that will help ensure all participants feel respected, included, and safe when training and competing,” the board of Gymnastics Canada said in the statement.
“We agree that many more supports must be in place to address unsafe practices in sport.”
On Monday, a group of gymnasts, including 10 Olympians, sent a letter to Sport Canada, the federal department that funds sports organizations, calling for an independent investigation into what they alleged were abusive practices and a toxic culture at Gymnastics Canada that has put athletes at risk.
Though the letter did not discuss specific allegations, it said problems involving physical, mental and sexual abuse have occurred over the past several years, but efforts to address them by Gymnastics Canada (GymCan) have been insufficient.
“We have pushed GymCan to investigate issues internally and to change policies to ensure athlete safety. We have gotten nowhere,” the athletes’ letter said. “Therefore, we now call on Sport Canada to fund an independent, third-party investigation into the ongoing toxic culture and abusive practices that persist within Canadian gymnastics.”
Gymnastics Canada is one of more than 60 National Sport Organizations (NSOs) operating in the country. Though these NSOs are independent from government, Ottawa funds them through Sport Canada and can pull that support if it doesn’t approve of how they operate.
Though Gymnastics Canada has moved to suspend coaches for wrongdoing in recent years, including those accused of sexual misconduct, the letter from the athletes suggested the problems run deeper than one or two cases. Athletes who spoke to The Globe and Mail said the complaints also include cases where athletes have been forced to train while injured, or subjected to unacceptable verbal abuse.
“We know that there are many more examples of harm that have not yet come to light, and we know that abusive behaviours continue in gyms across this country today,” the athletes’ letter said.
In its response Tuesday, the board of Gymnastics Canada said it would undertake a review of the organization’s culture and policies, which it began planning in January. As well, the board said it supported the federal government’s recently announced plan to introduce a mandatory, independent office for handling and investigating complaints of abuse in Canadian sport.
“We agree that an external and independent organization must be established to oversee complaints,” the Gymnastics Canada board said.
“We are troubled by the contents of the letter and recognize that, alongside other National Sport Organizations, more needs to be done to ensure safety in sport at all levels. Matters concerning athlete welfare are fundamental to all NSO operations, principles and values.”
The board’s statement came a day after Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge indicated the federal government would increase its scrutiny of NSOs. Though details have not been finalized, she told The Globe in an e-mail, “We are looking to strengthen how we monitor the responsibilities of organizations to keep their athletes safe, and we will hold organizations accountable if they fall short of expectations.”
A Globe investigation in December detailed how Canada’s top synchronized swimmers were pushed into dangerous eating disorders by coaches who used questionable sports science as a rationale for the abuse. The swimmers, including some who were hospitalized and developed lifelong health consequences, said their complaints to Canada Artistic Swimming were not investigated properly, and some feared retribution for speaking up.
In response to the investigation, Ms. St-Onge announced in January that a new independent complaints office set up to investigate allegations of abuse in sport would be mandatory for all NSOs. Previously, those organizations had the ability to opt out of the process and appoint their own investigators to handle complaints, which athletes said created a system stacked against them.
Since then, athletes in bobsleigh and skeleton have also raised allegations of maltreatment in their sport, followed by the open letter from gymnasts this week.
After the statement was issued by Gymnastics Canada Tuesday, the gymnasts issued a response, saying the steps being taken by the board were insufficient.
The athletes criticized Gymnastics Canada’s pledge to undertake a review of its culture, saying the process “only provides an illusion of independence,” since it would be controlled by the organization, including selecting and paying the consultants chosen to undertake the review.
“The statement is another glaring example of an organization that has used selective hearing to fit their own narrative instead of yielding athletes’ calls for an independent third-party investigation,” the gymnasts said.
“We rigorously challenge GymCan’s statement that they have appropriately ‘addressed every complaint or concern that has come forward.’ Many of the athletes who have signed the letter have brought complaints to GymCan only to have them dismissed, ignored, or mismanaged,” the athletes said Tuesday.
The gymnasts’ open letter does not list the names of those who have signed it. The group said some athletes don’t want their allegations of abuse known publicly, while others fear punishment for speaking up. Since the letter was released, the group said more people have added their support to it, including athletes and some coaches, bringing the total number to more than 120.
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