Canadian bobsled and skeleton athletes fear their national federation is trying to silence them, saying a clause in their athlete agreement contradicts the principles of safe sport.
The Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton athletes’ agreement for 2022-23 includes a clause that athletes not “divulge or convey to others” any information that paints BCS in a poor light. And the non-disclosure clause remains in effect for six months following the termination or completion of an athlete’s contract.
“It basically draws attention to the very thing we’re complaining about, that everything is very one-sided, they hold the power and they’re continuing to dig in by extending the force of which their power can be wielded, to tell us as athletes that we can’t speak negatively against BCS,” said one athlete, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
The clause has been in the contract for at least four years, according to several athletes who spoke to The Canadian Press on Monday.
But their fear of reprisal has grown since more than 60 current and former athletes publicly called for the resignation of BCS president Sarah Storey and high-performance director Chris LeBihan on March 7, amid what they said was a toxic environment in their sports.
Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, a worldwide athletes’ rights organization, said the clause “is a prime example of a federation that puts athletes’ rights last.”
“The only way forward is to allow athletes freedom of expression when issues arise,” added Koehler, who’s based in Montreal. “Every person has a fundamental right to freedom of expression. They are humans first, athletes second.”
The 60-plus athletes who penned the letter in March grew to more than 90 in the days that followed, and were supported by Olympic champion Justin Kripps and bronze medalist Christine de Bruin. De Bruin told The Toronto Star that “The whole way down the track (at the Beijing Olympics), I was like, ‘F-you, f-you, f-you.’ I really did do it in spite of BCS,” she says of winning that medal.
Several national sport organizations including Athletics Canada, Canada Basketball and Water Polo Canada told The Canadian Press they have no such clause in their athletes agreement.
“Woah. I would never sign that,” said a long-time national team athlete, who’s not in bobsled nor skeleton.
Water Polo Canada adopted the athletes agreement template written by AthletesCAN, in partnership with numerous Canadian sport representatives, in 2019. NSOs were strongly encouraged to use that agreement.
Boxing Canada has a clause that states an athlete: “Not publicly (including through social media) disparage or advance any grievance against Boxing Canada, Boxing Canada’s staff or coaches, members of the National Team, or other HPP (high-performance program) athletes except through Boxing Canada’s policies for complaints and appeals and the dispute resolution procedures provided for therein.”
Canadian boxers penned a similar open letter to Sport Canada on May 4 asking for a third-party investigation and the resignation of high-performance director Daniel Trepanier, saying Boxing Canada cultivated a toxic culture of fear and silence. Three-time world champion Mary Spencer told The Canadian Press that Trepanier “should have been fired years ago.” Trepanier resigned four days after the letter was sent.
Madison Charney, who recently retired as a skeleton athlete, said the BCS athletes agreement leaves no room for negotiation.
“Athletes can’t come back and say, ‘We agree with these sections, (but) you have to edit these sections before we’ll sign them,”' said Charney, who competed on the World Cup circuit for several years, but wasn’t named to Canada’s team for the Beijing Olympics.
“It’s different being an amateur athlete versus being a professional athlete, where they understand you’re the asset. Our federation doesn’t understand we’re the asset.”
In what Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge has called a safe sport “crisis,” the past few months have felt like floodgates opening. Hundreds of Canadian gymnasts have called for an independent investigation, and retired gymnast Amelia Cline recently filed a class-action lawsuit against Gymnastics Canada and six provincial gymnastics federations alleging years of physical and mental abuse by her coaches.
Rowing, rugby, synchronized swimming and women’s soccer have also called for a cleanup of their sport’s toxic culture, while Canada’s men’s soccer team refused to play Sunday’s World Cup tune-up game against Panama amid a contract dispute between the players and the sport’s national governing body.
St-Onge has been vocal in her support of athletes speaking out, telling The Canadian Press in March that “it is because of their strength and courage that we’re acting with an even greater sense of urgency.”
Several bobsled and skeleton athletes said little has changed in the three months since their public letter. They said they rejected a proposal from BCS for third-party mediation, after Michelle Simpson was named the mediator. Simpson was also the mediator in Kaillie Humphries’ case against BCS. Humphries won two Olympic titles for Canada, but joined the American team amid her bitter battle with the Canadian federation, and raced to gold for the U.S. this year in Beijing.
“We never ever entered into an arena (of mediation),” said one athlete. “The way BCS went about it contravenes their own policies as to how a mediator is selected it’s supposed to be a mutually agreed upon third party. We felt that (the mediator selected) was not a good-faith act and these would not be good-faith discussions.”
The BCS board of directors said in a statement Monday that it is “working through a process proposed by national team athlete representatives which, at the request of these representatives, requires Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton to maintain confidentiality.
“Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton’s Board of Directors remain committed to identifying and resolving the issues brought forward by athletes through this forum that encourages open dialogue and transparency.”
At the request of the board, athletes presented a 24-page document of their complaints last month.
Charney said the non-disclosure clause “continues the gaslighting that we’ve been experiencing for the last X number of years. They encouraged us to speak out and they encouraged us to bring our ideas to the table. And as soon as we do that, we’re reprimanded.”
Both bobsled and skeleton will host national team camps next month in Calgary, and so athletes will need to sign agreements – which is also a requirement to receive government funding, or carding – in the coming weeks.
Charney said despite the frustration of the past few months, she’s proud that bobsled and skeleton may have paved a path for athletes in other sports to speak out.
“We are thankful that we gave other people a platform to be able to speak out, because we know how hard it was to initially come forward and to be able to allow other athletes to do that, that made it all worthwhile.”