A group of Canadian gymnasts has launched a class-action lawsuit against Gymnastics Canada and six affiliated provincial organizations, alleging the sport’s governing bodies turned a blind eye to years of physical, sexual and psychological abuse by coaches and other officials.
The proposed class action, filed Wednesday in B.C. Supreme Court, alleges that Gymnastics Canada presided over an abusive culture in which athletes were subjected to inappropriate and sexualized touching from coaches, pushed into dangerous eating disorders and regularly subjected to threats and humiliation.
Some, including minors, were forced to train while injured and pushed to perform skills beyond their capabilities, resulting in serious injuries, while parents were prevented from observing practices, the lawsuit alleges.
“This action arises from the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of gymnasts in Canada while they were under the care and control of the provincial gymnastics organization in their jurisdiction and Gymnastics Canada,” it says.
“Globally, the sport of gymnastics has come under scrutiny for its culture of cruelty,” the documents say. “Factors such as a ‘win-at-all-costs’ approach, young and mostly female gymnasts, and inherent power imbalances, along with a culture of control and an overarching tolerance of abusive behaviour have all led to the creation of an environment where abuse and mistreatment of athletes are commonplace.”
None of the allegations have been proven in court. The proposed class action is led by Amelia Cline, a former gymnast who left the sport in the mid-2000s because of an allegedly abusive coach. Ms. Cline is listed as the lead plaintiff in the documents, but at least 15 other gymnasts have joined the class action as of Wednesday.
Gymnastics Canada could not immediately be reached for comment. The suit also names the provincial governing bodies in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.
Nigel Loring, chief executive of Gymnastics B.C., and Robin McDougall, executive director of Gymnastics Alberta, said in e-mailed statements that their organizations learned of the lawsuit Wednesday and could not immediately respond to the allegations.
“As we have yet to be served with or provided any official notification or legal documents, GymBC is not in a position to comment at this time,” Mr. Loring said.
The gymnasts allege the governing bodies failed to properly protect athletes.
“The Defendants caused or contributed to the abuse of gymnasts by creating a culture and an environment where the abuse could occur, and failing to take appropriate steps to protect the athletes in their care and control, many of whom were children when the abuse took place,” the lawsuit alleges.
Ms. Cline, now 32, was a 14-year-old rising star in Canadian gymnastics when she pulled her hamstring so badly that it tore off a fragment of bone. She was training in B.C. and says it happened when her coach, demanding she train harder, took hold of her leg and forced her into a dangerous stretch, ignoring her cries about the pain.
Two months later, still recovering from the injury, she returned to practice. Her coach ordered her to execute a specific series of flips she hadn’t sufficiently practised and did not feel ready to attempt. As her teammates watched, she landed on her head. Though she avoided a potentially catastrophic neck injury, her face was left bloodied.
Upset, the coach led her to his office and placed her on a scale, Ms. Cline recalled in an interview, telling her the real reason she couldn’t execute the complex manoeuvre wasn’t because she hadn’t practised it – but because she wasn’t thin enough.
Gymnasts at the club had been instructed behind closed doors on how to refuse food at home, how to push it around their plates without actually eating it and how to lie about eating disorders to their parents. At least one young gymnast was encouraged to purge before weekly weighings by team staff, Ms. Cline said in the interview.
“Amelia’s experience of abuse is representative of what many gymnasts in Canada endure,” the suit says. “Numerous gymnasts across Canada have brought forward complaints spanning decades that detail their experiences of sexual, physical and psychological abuse and institutional complicity that has enabled the culture of mistreatment of gymnastics athletes to persist.”
In addition to physical abuse such as slapping, pinching and overtraining, as well as psychological abuse such as belittling and ignoring athletes who failed to perform, the lawsuit alleges sexual abuse of unnamed gymnasts. The claims include “inappropriate sexual contact and sexual activity, such as sexual grabbing, kissing and fondling.”
The athletes allege Gymnastics Canada condoned the abuse or turned a blind eye, instead rewarding and promoting coaches who produced results. The national governing body, along with the provincial organizations, also created an environment that “discouraged athletes from reporting abuse” and failed to investigate concerns properly when they were raised, the lawsuit alleges.
In March, a group of 71 past and present Canadian gymnasts, including 10 Olympians, sent an open letter to Sport Canada calling for an independent investigation into problems in their sport, which they said Gymnastics Canada failed to properly investigate or address. The letter has since been signed by hundreds of athletes and parents. Athletes in bobsleigh, skeleton and boxing have issued similar open letters calling for investigations into abuse within their sports in recent months.
The board of Gymnastics Canada said in March that it was troubled by the letter and was committed to “continuing to educate and advocate for system-wide reforms that will help all participants feel respected, included and safe when training and competing.” The board added, “We agree that many more supports must be in place to address unsafe practices in sport.”
In April, the judge who presided over the trial of disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually assaulting more than 150 athletes, lent her support to the Canadian gymnasts, urging the government to yield to their calls for an independent investigation.
Ms. Cline, who is one of the gymnasts who signed the March letter, said legal action is also necessary because several athletes are facing lifelong consequences from their experiences, including medical bills for physical pain and psychological trauma.
The gymnasts say they have suffered a wide range of problems, from chronic pain, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts to lifelong eating disorders, stunted growth and development, addiction and anger issues.
Sexual trauma has left some unable to develop and maintain intimate relationships, the documents say. Others have suffered job loss due to their injuries and have been left with expenses arising from the abuse, including therapy.
The claims in the lawsuit go back as far as 1978. Though the federal government is setting up new systems to oversee independent investigations into complaints of abuse by athletes, Ms. Cline said those processes won’t necessarily help gymnasts who suffered abuse in the past, nor are they designed to address the systemic change within the sport that the athletes are seeking.
For those reasons, the lawsuit became necessary, she said.
“I think it’s become evident that there’s really no mechanism within the existing sport system to ensure some accountability for these institutions and to offer some level of justice to people who have been harmed,” Ms. Cline said. “That’s what this lawsuit is really designed to bring about – sending the message that you can’t allow systemic abuse to exist within your organization or you will be held liable for it.”
Last year, a group of Canadian synchronized swimmers launched a proposed class-action lawsuit against Canada Artistic Swimming, also claiming their concerns of abuse were ignored and had made the legal action necessary. Those allegations have also not been tested in court. That lawsuit, which now involves more than 50 swimmers, is still seeking certification.
The lawsuit does not specify the damages being sought. Ms. Cline said the purpose of the legal action is to help gymnasts deal with the long-term consequences of the alleged abuse.
“We know that there are many in our community who desperately need treatment for both their physical and psychological injuries. And the financial aspect of the lawsuit is really designed to ensure that they can access that kind of treatment,” she said.
Global Athlete, an advocacy group that represents amateur athletes, said there has long been talk within the sport about problems, but solutions have been slow to come.
“Gymnastics athletes have been speaking up for years and nothing has been done,” said Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete in Montreal, which collaborated on the recent open letter issued by gymnasts.
“Over 450 gymnasts came forward. … The response from Canadian sport leaders is to have meetings and more meetings. These meetings do not bring closure to the victims, nor does it make those responsible for the abuse accountable,” Mr. Koehler said.
“Sport has proven they are not fit for purpose to self-regulate. Complaints have been filed and very little is done. … As a result, the civil route is the only option.”