Skip to main content

Former Olympic synchronized swimmer Erin Willson stands poolside at the University of Toronto, where she is now a PhD student studying abuse in sport.Hannah Kiviranta/The Globe and Mail

A prominent sport funding organization is calling for tougher action in Canada to prevent abuse of athletes, saying problems inside the national synchronized swimming team have implications for all of amateur sport, right down to the grassroots levels.

In an investigation published Tuesday, The Globe and Mail reported that coaches used highly suspect science to push aspiring Olympic synchronized swimmers to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, often through dangerous methods. Many suffered eating disorders and say they’ve been left with significant physical and mental-health problems.

“We’ve seen enough. Now it’s time to act,” said Dominick Gauthier, co-founder of the sport funding group B2ten, and a former Olympic freestyle skier. “We’re not here to protect organizations anymore, we’re here to protect athletes’ lives.”

B2ten’s founders spoke out in support of the synchronized swimmers Wednesday, saying the timing is right for newly appointed Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge to confront what they see as weaknesses in the system – a lack of protection for athletes and not enough support for victims.

“We’re beyond awareness. Now it’s more like: What needs to be done,” Mr. Gauthier said.

B2ten uses private-sector donations to help Olympians improve their medal chances by providing targeted resources for training, medical treatment and other athletic needs.

Created in the run-up to the 2010 Olympics as a way to bolster Canada’s athletes by bringing a business-like approach to sport development, the independent non-profit group has seen its focus expand into unexpected areas, such as helping athletes with abuse and mental-health concerns.

“Over and over we’re seeing athletes in so many different sports that are suffering. They’re suffering physically and, on a long-term basis, they’re suffering emotionally,” said JD Miller, a Montreal businessman who co-founded B2ten. “When the health of the athlete is put at risk, when it’s subrogated to performance, you just have to draw the line.

“The situation merits the new minister taking a hard look at what Sport Canada is not doing, and take corrective steps,” Mr. Miller said.

Dangerous games: A troubling number of Canadian Olympians are binging, purging and starving themselves. Inside the eating disorder problem in elite amateur sports

As part of an investigation into the prevalence of serious eating disorders among Canadian Olympians, The Globe reported this week that a plan by Ottawa intended to protect athletes from abuse – by creating an independent third-party complaints investigator – contains troubling flaws.

The new mechanism isn’t mandatory for the more than 60 national sports organizations. Any sports organization that wishes to, can instead hire its own third-party investigator to handle allegations of abuse. This raises questions about conflicts of interest, and whether national programs are being allowed to investigate themselves.

The new system, run by the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC), begins operating in 2022.

When allegations of athlete maltreatment inside synchronized swimming emerged publicly in late 2020, Canadian Artistic Swimming (CAS) hired its own third-party investigator to probe the complaints. In March, CAS announced the lead investigator “determined that they did not see sufficient evidence to conclude there is an unsafe training environment in the senior national team program.”

That investigation has not been made public. The Globe asked CAS why it has been kept confidential, but spokesman Joel Mineau did not respond to the question.

The Globe detailed how athletes were given target weights that seemed arbitrarily chosen and had little to do with their body composition. A swimmer who weighed 136 lbs. and was already physically fit, was told to drop to 128 lbs. That was then lowered to 124 lbs. without warning. When she starved herself down to 122 lbs. in the span of a few months, fearing she could be cut from the team, her coach told her to keep going. The weight-loss target appeared to be manufactured, not based in science.

The swimmer, Erin Willson, eventually dropped to 118 lbs. and developed a serious eating disorder. Ms. Willson was also told by her coach that medical scans indicating she had low bone density meant she should actually weigh less than she did. An expert on eating disorders told The Globe that is faulty logic that could be dangerous to the athlete’s health.

Several swimmers’ target weights were tied to their contracts. If they did not meet their arbitrary number, they faced being removed from the team, and would be forced to pay back as much as $50,000 to cover coaching fees, facility rentals and other costs.

Other athletes were told they needed to lose 15, 20 or 40 lbs., sometimes in only a few weeks. When they asked what those numbers were based on, the answer given was “sports science,” swimmer Gabriella Brisson said in an interview. The Globe asked CAS to provide the methodology for how those weight targets were determined for each athlete. Mr. Mineau did not respond to the request.

The athletes’ plight now forms the basis of a proposed class-action lawsuit launched in March, which involves 50 synchronized swimmers spanning the past decade. The athletes say they turned to the courts because their complaints of maltreatment weren’t being addressed inside the national program.

Mr. Gauthier said he had concerns about the synchronized swimming team starting in 2011, after B2ten decided to provide additional resources to the program. B2ten pulled back when Mr. Gauthier witnessed highly questionable coaching methods at a training camp that year.

The group relayed its concerns to officials at Own the Podium, which is funded by the federal government, and the Canadian Olympic Committee. However, B2ten was told nothing could be done about the coaching because it was too close to the 2012 Olympics to make a change.

As a result, B2ten ended its involvement with synchronized swimming.

In the fall of 2019, four swimmers approached B2ten for help. In March, 2020, the organization connected the swimmers with lawyers who launched the class action, which is awaiting certification.

Mr. Gauthier said B2ten never envisioned itself having to help athletes with issues such as abuse, but since it is not connected to the national programs, or the Canadian Olympic Committee, athletes see it as independent.

“It’s not something we’re happy that we have to be involved in, but at the end of the day we know that’s the role we need to play,” Mr. Gauthier said. “We’re the only independent organization that’s in a position to speak up, speak for athletes and speak against [problems]. But we never thought we’d be involved in that, that’s for sure.

“It’s because athletes trust that they can speak to us,” he said. “We’re not someone who would try to protect an organization over protecting an athlete.”

An independent system to investigate complaints of abuse, which is mandatory for all sport organizations, would lead to a safer system, B2ten believes.

However, federal department spokesman Daniel Savoie told The Globe that creating a single mandatory system is “complex,” since each National Sport Organization (NSO) has autonomy. The government said it monitors third-party firms selected by NSOs for problems and each one must meet “high standards for independence.”

But in documents sent to the federal government, which were obtained this fall by The Globe, B2ten detailed numerous problems in some NSOs, including situations where the 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.”

Mr. Miller said the gaps in the system must be addressed. “We’re frustrated seeing young people continue to suffer and lose their dreams,” he said.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.