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Canada's Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge, with Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Sport Adam van Koeverden, on Parliament Hill on Dec. 8, 2021.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge is reviewing how national sport organizations deal with abuse within their own ranks, following a Globe and Mail investigation that detailed a troubling number of eating disorders among Olympic athletes, and coaches driven by dubious sports science.

The revelations exposed flaws in the system Ottawa created to protect athletes at all levels of sport from maltreatment, including an oversight mechanism that lacks independence and is rife with potential conflicts of interest.

“It is clear from the research and recent reports in The Globe and Mail that we need to do more and to move quickly,” Ms. St-Onge said in a statement.

“I will review the requirements that are currently in place at Sport Canada for funded organizations and assess whether they are achieving results.”

The new minister, who was appointed in October, said she will also be calling for meetings in the next few weeks with key stakeholders in the amateur sport community to discuss solutions to some of the problems raised in the investigation.

The Globe detailed how eating disorders had become a widely recognized concern among athletes on several national teams, driven by questionable coaching, bad advice or a toxic culture. Yet the problem is mostly underdiagnosed.

A second article examined how athletes inside the national synchronized swimming program were put in dangerous situations, causing some to be hospitalized, by a program that used highly suspect sports science to justify inflicting arbitrary weight targets on swimmers. However, because athletes lack a fully independent system to register complaints of abuse, the swimmers were unable to push back, fearing it would ruin their careers.

Ms. St-Onge took to Twitter after the second article was published, saying the examples of abuse cited in the reporting were unacceptable.

“The situations described in the article are more than worrying and must be denounced. No athlete should be subjected to such practices,” Ms. St-Onge wrote.

Former minister of sport Kirsty Duncan, who began laying the groundwork to address abuse in amateur sport in 2018, also called out the problems raised in the articles.

“Athletes are not chattel,” Ms. Duncan, who is now Deputy House Leader, said on Twitter. “They do not belong to associations, coaches or anyone else. Pressure to starve, make weight, and public shaming are not new in some sports and have been rampant from the club level to the highest level for decades.”

While the federal government has made strides in recent years to institute a complaints mechanism to protect athletes at all levels – from the elite ranks to the grassroots – it is still very much a work in progress, and still contains significant holes.

Ottawa announced a new system in July that would see the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC), an independent organization that is respected within the amateur sport community, investigate allegations of abuse in national sport organizations (NSOs).

However, in setting up this new system, the government did not make it mandatory for the more than 60 sport organizations in Canada to subject themselves to the SDRCC or its investigations.

Any NSO that wants to opt out of the process can simply hire its own investigators to handle and investigate complaints of athlete abuse. This leaves these third-party investigators in a conflict of interest, since the organization under investigation also hires and pays them.

Critics in the athlete community, including former Olympic freestyle skier Jennifer Heil, say this amounts to letting sport organizations investigate themselves, since they could potentially exert influence over the investigators they hire. Athletes don’t see that system as trustworthy or acceptable, Ms. Heil told The Globe in an interview.

The SDRCC will begin operating this year, but it’s still unclear how many NSOs will join. When The Globe asked Canadian Artistic Swimming (CAS), which governs synchronized swimming, if it would submit to the new process, an official with the organization was non-committal.

This represents one of Ms. St-Onge’s biggest challenges as she inherits the file from previous minister Steven Guilbeault – how to fix a system that some of Canada’s highest profile Olympians, including Ms. Heil and others, say they simply do not trust will do the job properly if it is not mandatory for NSOs to join.

The Globe obtained copies of federal lobbying documents submitted by the independent sport funding group B2ten, which flagged several concerns for the government, given the inherent conflicts of interest.

“In many cases the mandates of those independent third parties are so restrictive that the so-called ‘independent officer’ must report to the CEO or the Board of Directors (sometimes even seek permission from them) before they can initiate an investigation or move forward with any internal disciplinary process,” the documents say. “Some ‘independent third parties’ are just complaint-intake services that answer the phone and fill out a form that is then sent to someone within the concerned NSO to handle.”

Several swimmers have made allegations of abuse against Canadian Artistic Swimming, including a culture of dangerous eating disorders that have left some with long-term health consequences. However, CAS announced in March that its own third-party investigator “did not see sufficient evidence” of a problem inside the program.

CAS has not made that third-party investigation public, and there is no transparency on how it was conducted. Allegations from about 50 swimmers now form the basis of a proposed class-action lawsuit.

Ms. Heil told The Globe that amateur athletes shouldn’t have to turn to the courts to deal with allegations of abuse. An independent investigation mechanism that is mandatory is the first step to creating a proper system, she said.

Though NSOs are separate from government, they are federally funded. Ottawa can pull support if it finds mismanagement inside a particular program.

Ms. St-Onge told The Globe she will review the expectations placed on NSOs, and will hold meetings with organizations and athletes’ groups this month to discuss what changes need to be made.

“We will discuss what is needed for the launch and implementation to be effective, if and how the needs of athletes and the sport community have evolved in recent months, and how we can make sure that the implementation meets the needs of athletes,” she said.

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