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Erin Willson, one of about 50 synchronized swimmers who are now part of a class-action lawsuit against Canada Artistic Swimming, said she is encouraged by the new policies, but skeptical the system can be truly independent.Hannah Kiviranta/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s national synchronized swimming program, which has been hit by allegations of abuse and maltreatment from several former Olympians who say they were pushed into dangerous eating disorders, has introduced new policies it says will better protect athletes.

Benoit Girardin, a sports lawyer and professor who was retained by Canada Artistic Swimming (CAS) to draft the new policies, said the changes will create a more independent system for handling and investigating complaints from athletes in the program.

In particular, the organization itself will no longer be able to exert direct control over how allegations of abuse are handled, and whether complaints from athletes can proceed.

“That’s out. That was removed,” Mr. Girardin told The Globe and Mail, referring to CAS’s previous system, which gave the leadership say over whether allegations of abuse were admissible or had enough merit.

A Globe investigation in December detailed how several Olympians were driven to dangerous eating disorders over the past 10 years by coaches using questionable sports science as a rationale. Some swimmers were hospitalized, while others are left with long-term health consequences.

Several of the swimmers told The Globe they raised formal complaints about those problems, along with other allegations of maltreatment, over the years. But those concerns were often not adequately addressed, putting more athletes at risk.

The problems at CAS have helped reshape how Canada’s more than 60 national sports organizations (NSOs) will operate in the future, by shining a light on how sports programs were essentially allowed to oversee – and potentially influence – their own investigations.

Late last month, Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge announced she would fix a loophole detailed in The Globe’s investigation that would allow NSOs to opt out of an independent process that Ottawa set up to handle complaints of abuse and maltreatment.

Ottawa gave the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) responsibility for the process last summer as a way to clamp down on abuse throughout amateur sport, from the grassroots up to the national teams. However, the government did not make it mandatory for NSOs to sign on to the centre’s oversight when it begins operating this spring.

This effectively allowed organizations to hire their own third-party investigators to handle internal complaints, creating a system that is rife with opportunities for conflicts of interest. Several high-profile Olympians, including freestyle skiing champion Jennifer Heil, said athletes don’t trust a system in which the NSOs oversee investigators whom they hire and pay.

Ms. St-Onge pledged to make using the new independent office for complaints mandatory for all sports organizations once it begins operating, although the timeline for that is unclear.

Mr. Girardin, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said the new policies announced by CAS should create a system in which athletes can have more faith until the independent process is ready to operate.

The new policy creates a complaint triage officer (CTO) who is outside the NSO and is expected to operate independently from the program to hear allegations of abuse and refer them to a complaint manager, who can order a hearing before a discipline panel, he said.

Although the triage officer is still chosen by the sport organization, raising the possibility for conflicts of interest, Mr. Girardin said the office does not report to CAS, and more checks and balances are in place to ensure administrators can’t exert pressure.

“The CTO cannot be interfered with, or influenced,” Mr. Girardin said. “The board [of CAS] cannot raise a flag and say, ‘No, no, we’re exercising our governance power and we’re overriding you.’ It’s outside the federation once the complaint is filed.

“Contrary to the past, at no point is the board or the CEO interfering in that process. So that gives much more independence and confidence, I would say.”

Several of Canada’s national sports organizations have been hit by abuse cases in recent years, from gymnastics to soccer and alpine skiing. The complaints include sexual, physical and mental abuse.

Policies and codes of conduct in several countries are being overhauled to make sport safer after widespread sexual abuse was uncovered in the U.S. gymnastics program. That revelation shook the sports world and led to a greater focus on the gaps in protection for athletes, particularly younger ones, who are often afraid to speak up. Canada is still working on how to better address cases of physical and mental abuse such as the allegations in the synchronized swimming community.

In the case of CAS, the swimmers eventually turned to the courts to have their complaints heard and because they feared more people could be harmed in the future without a change in culture and oversight.

Erin Willson, one of about 50 synchronized swimmers who are now part of a class-action lawsuit against CAS, said she is encouraged by the new policies, but skeptical the system can be truly independent.

“I think in theory it’s better,” Ms. Willson said of the new policy, provided the triage officer and complaints manager retain complete independence from the program. “The concerns I would see is, where does the information go back to?”

Ms. Willson said the Sport Minister’s recent pledge to require all sports organizations to sign on with the dispute resolution centre as the independent investigator of problems is the better solution.

“Having the SDRCC, where they are completely independent, where all sanctions go through them, where it’s a more visible process, I support that more than NSOs kind of creating their own system,” she said.

“It’s great that she’s really taking this seriously and listening to the athletes. I was really encouraged by it.”

Ms. Willson, recently named the president of AthletesCAN, which represents national team members on policy matters, said a survey of athletes in 2019 overwhelmingly called for an independent system.

“The biggest thing athletes said is they don’t trust their sport organization and they need an independent body,” Ms. Willson said.

The SDRCC was created as a dispute resolution service for sports. Mr. Girardin, who was its CEO between 2001 and 2007, said the new policies at CAS are a step forward, but the eventual mandatory use of the SDRCC will be key.

“I’m pretty confident that now, if I had an athlete calling me and I walked them through the [CAS] process, they will say … there’s no interference by my federation who can control my complaint or diminish my complaint,” he said of the new policies.

Those policies will act as a bridge until using the dispute resolution centre becomes mandatory. “When the SDRCC will be ready, that’s the intent of CAS, to join the mechanism and of course review the policies accordingly,” Mr. Girardin said.

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