The Canadian Olympic Committee is investigating a sexual harassment complaint against its president, Marcel Aubut, that alleges the organization ignored past warning signs about the behaviour of its high-profile leader, sources in Canadian amateur sports have told The Globe and Mail.
The COC said on Wednesday evening that Mr. Aubut has stepped aside during the investigation.
The complaint has led to an internal crisis at the COC, where relations between Mr. Aubut and some of his senior managers have become conflictual, sources said.
It was filed by a staff member who works at the Canadian Olympic Foundation, which is affiliated with the COC and is in the same Toronto building, sources said.
A former COC official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the complaint against Mr. Aubut deals with "verbal comments" he is alleged to have made to the female complainant. The Globe has not had access to the written complaint, which is not in the public domain. The complainant is on leave and could not be reached for comment.
Officials from the COC have been in contact with at least one former senior management member of the committee to gather information on Mr. Aubut, a source said. Another source who is part of Canada's Olympic movement said: "I know there have been board meetings on the matter."
After The Globe broke the story online, the COC announced it had retained François Rolland, a retired judge, to investigate the complaint.
"Mr. Aubut has requested, and the Canadian Olympic Committee has agreed that he step away from his duties as Canadian Olympic Committee president and Canadian Olympic Foundation chairman for the duration of the investigation," the COC stated. "He has indicated that he will co-operate fully with the investigation, which, by its nature is confidential, out of respect for the parties."
In a separate statement, a spokesman for Mr. Aubut said the probe should be completed by mid-October.
"Mr. Aubut declared that he never had the intention to offend or upset anyone with the words that he used as he fulfilled his professional duties," the statement said.
The Canadian Olympic movement is a mix of athletes, sports federations and private-sector sponsors that strives to sell a clean and youthful image that is an example for society through the Olympic and Pan Am Games and related events. The controversy over the sexual harassment complaint threatens to derail the efforts of Mr. Aubut to grow the movement and transform the COC into a pillar of Canada's sports establishment.
Mr. Aubut has raised the profile of the COC – and put himself front and centre at Canadian Olympic events – since he was elected president in 2009 over four-time Olympic rower Tricia Smith.
However, a former COC staffer said clashes have been growing of late between Mr. Aubut and the Canadian Olympic Committee's chief executive officer, Chris Overholt, related to Mr. Aubut's constant "presence" in every aspect of the organization's activities.
According to one former associate, Mr. Aubut, 67, is both "over-the-top complimentary and over-the-top demanding" in his dealings with staff. He has rubbed a number of people the wrong way in his career, including as a top lawyer in Quebec and the former owner of the Nordiques hockey team, while garnering friends and allies around the world.
At most COC events, Mr. Aubut speaks at length about his goals for the Olympic movement and achievements, leading some detractors to describe it as the "Marcel Show."
Mr. Aubut portrays himself as an underdog who, through hard work and determination, left a farm in rural Quebec to become a top member of the international Olympic movement. The Globe reported in a 2014 profile that when he decided to run for the COC presidency six years ago, he activated every branch of his network and ran a campaign akin to a political leadership race that shocked parts of Canada's usually stolid, genteel Olympic movement.
"I hadn't been in the machine forever, I wasn't a former Olympian, I wasn't an anglophone," he said in an interview two years ago. "On the contrary, I came from the world of professional sports, having learned the ropes in the lap of luxury, with athletes making millions of dollars. Everything was against me."
Mr. Aubut has been described as "gregarious" by some of his friends, but a number of sources have said many women disapprove of the way he has commented on their appearance.