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A sexual-harassment complaint against COC president Marcel Aubut was dropped when he resigned last week.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The women of the office had a distant early warning system of sorts: They called it the "Marcel alert."

So when Marcel Aubut would pitch up at VANOC, the organizing body for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, sources allege that text messages and e-mails would zip around the building.

According to multiple sources who worked in and around VANOC at the time, Mr. Aubut stood out with his gregariousness and ambition, but he was also known for flirtatiousness and physical affection.

"Not everybody was comfortable with it," said a woman who occupied a senior role at VANOC and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Aubut may have stepped down as head of the Canadian Olympic Committee after an employee made a complaint of sexual harassment against him, but questions remain about how much the organization was aware of unease among staff about his behaviour, which includes allegations of unwanted advances.

The Globe and Mail revealed last week that Mr. Aubut was the subject of a formal sexual-harassment complaint by a staff member who works at the Canadian Olympic Foundation, which is affiliated with the COC, but allegations of unwanted advances long predate his formal involvement with the organization. One former Olympic athlete alleges she was fondled as far back as 1999.

But sources say VANOC's senior management was sufficiently concerned to conduct an internal human resources investigation in the summer and fall of 2009. There were multiple reports, but in the end no one decided to pursue a formal complaint.

However, the findings were shared with the COC's top brass, former VANOC officials said. The organization's chief executive officer at the time, Chris Rudge, left his post not long after Mr. Aubut formally took office.

In the intervening years, the discomfort around Mr. Aubut has only grown, and on the weekend, the 67-year-old power broker stepped down from his position at the COC.

The investigation into the complaint has been called off, the COC said, but the organization has pledged to continue with a third-party probe of the broader questions of workplace harassment and impropriety. The employee who filed the grievance against Mr. Aubut has apparently indicated she will participate in it. None of the allegations against Mr. Aubut has been proved in court.

Among the questions the yet-to-be-named investigator will have to address is: Who in management and on the board knew what, and when did they know it? And how was this behaviour allowed to continue?

Part of it has to do with power. Mr. Aubut, the former owner of the Quebec Nordiques hockey team, enjoyed a great deal of it because of his vast array of contacts and his golden touch with fundraising. Some of it is the result of influence and the way in which the amateur sports establishment is structured. There is a wide range in governance practices, and fiefdoms are commonplace.

The higher levels of amateur sports organizations in Canada are like a feedback loop: Only those already inside the circle may be elected to most boards (including the COC's). And as critics of the system point out, the people who elect the COC's president and directors invariably stand to benefit directly from the programs they oversee.

In discussions with former Olympic athletes, current and former COC personnel and various other players in the sports apparatus, a consensus has emerged: Deep reforms are needed to the way the COC operates.

"There needs to be systemic-level change. When are the structures that support athletes finally going to be held up to the standard of ethics and respect athletes are?" said Sylvie Fréchette, a two-time Olympic medalist in synchronized swimming who later became a COC official and says she left in part because of the work environment.

Delicate questions will also be asked of senior management at the COC, including current CEO Chris Overholt, who attended a 2011 meeting with his predecessor, Jean Dupré, and then-COC counsel Jolan Storch to confront Mr. Aubut over allegations of inappropriate comments and touching.

According to a June 13, 2011, letter from Mr. Dupré – first obtained by La Presse but also viewed by The Globe – the parties agreed to keep the matter, which was "not an isolated incident," confidential. Mr. Aubut agreed to refrain from touching, kissing and sexual innuendo.

One of the frequent criticisms of the COC is that its stated aim of focusing all of its efforts on the athletes often feels like lip service. The organization is deep-pocketed and has become more so under Mr. Aubut, doling out money to various national sporting organizations. It has also spent lavishly on new offices in Montreal and a museum, in addition to bulking up its staff during Mr. Aubut's tenure.

The hope inside the broader Olympic community is that the COC's critical self-examination can start to happen under Mr. Aubut's interim replacement – board vice-president Tricia Smith, a lawyer and former Olympic rower who was runner-up in the last COC presidential election.

Meanwhile, Mr. Aubut exits quietly to focus on his Quebec City law practice – and does so with some degree of serenity. He said in a statement, "I leave with a sense of accomplishment."

That stands in marked contrast to the approach earlier in the week. Mr. Aubut and his team searched old e-mails to find elements to defend him, including friendly notes to Mr. Aubut from the woman making the allegation. As other women came forward in the media, his allies quietly circulated previous correspondence that raised questions about their motivations, actions or ethics.

But on Friday morning, a report on the 2011 meeting and letter proved impossible to defend. Early Saturday, Mr. Aubut began to signal he was willing to resign.

In a statement announcing his decision to leave the COC, he said, "Although I assume full responsibility for my effusive and demonstrative personality, I would like to reiterate that I never intended to offend or upset anyone with my remarks or my behaviour."

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