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Money and medals put pressure on high performance sport in Canada

Hundreds of Canadian athletes, active and retired, are quick to identify the ways high performance sport has let them down.

Whether at Gymnastics Canada, Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, Rugby Canada, Rowing Canada, or even Artistic Swimming Canada, athletes have demanded many changes in recent months, whether it be changes in coaches or senior management, in demanding better management of complaints for harassment or intimidation, or by eliminating opaque selection procedures.

The increase in cases raised by athletes recently led the federal Minister of Sports, Pascale St-Onge, to urgently create a consultation table and to invest $16 million from the federal budget for a safe sports environment.

Since St-Onge was appointed in October, she says she has heard of cases of mistreatment, sexual abuse or misuse of funds in at least eight national sports organizations. St-Onge, who called the situation a crisis, expects there to be more cases.

How did we get here?

Canada has set records for the number of medals at the last Summer and Winter Games. To hear the recent complaints from athletes, one wonders what the price has been. What causes this erosion of the confidence of athletes towards the leaders of federations?

“Athletes will constantly tell you that they don’t play their sport just for themselves or their coaches. They also do it for the financing of their sport, for its future, explains the professor emeritus in sport and public policies of the University of Toronto Bruce Kidd. It is a heavy burden.”

Some point to Own the Podium (OTP), established in 2005 after Vancouver and Whistler won the 2010 Winter Olympics with the clear goal of getting more Canadian athletes on the podium.

ANP makes funding recommendations based on medal potential in addition to providing technical expertise to national sports federations.

The organization currently places some $70 million of Canada’s high performance envelope of over $200 million with sports federations counting on athletes capable of reaching the Olympic, JP and of the various World Championships. These amounts are used to pay training and competition costs.

ANP’s recommendations must be approved by the federal government, but the perception of athletes is that ANP has some power over decisions made by federations.

“ANP’s mandate is to help those athletes and coaches who want to excel on the world stage,” defended ANP’s president and CEO, Anne Merklinger. The federations lead their high performance program. These programs do not belong to ANP.

“Every athlete in this country should have the opportunity to train and perform at the level they desire, in a healthy and safe environment.”

But these athletes find that the methods advocated by the coaches are not questioned if they win.

“I’ve seen everything from psychological abuse, humiliation, extremely harsh criticism, to the point of destroying the self-confidence of these athletes,” said Carla Edwards, a sports psychiatrist who works as a counselor at the mental health with top athletes.

“They were literally told, ‘You don’t know anything, you’re nothing. I think the athletes in Canada have had enough.”

Fear of losing funding can breed an organizational culture where problems go unreported or overlooked. Others provide quick fixes that don’t touch the heart of the problem, Edwards adds.

“Olympic coaches told me that mental health is shit, that there was nothing I could tell them that could change their minds,” she adds. These behaviors are permitted and tolerated. (…) It’s the old way. If they get results, no one questions their ways.”

It’s not new that funding for high performance in the country is tied to results. This win-at-all-costs mentality led to ben Johnson being stripped of his 100m gold medal from the 1988 Games for doping, which led to the Dubin Commission on doping.

“When these public hearings took place, the athletes all testified to the same thing: the enormous pressure from Sport Canada to win or not receive funding made possible this culture where doping was encouraged or that those in charge shut down eyes,” recalls Kidd.

“To focus only on the catwalks created enormous pressure that led to these rule violations and today, mistreatment and abuse of all kinds.”

Alpine skier Allison Forsyth recalls her sleep-depriving anxiety attacks at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, after it was made clear to her that her federation would be starved of funds if she did not win a medal.

“The fact that a person like me, ranked third in the world, didn’t care about winning the Olympics for me, but because of the funding associated with this victory is ridiculous, she assures. Own the podium only made things worse.”

Forsyth found herself at the heart of one of the biggest abuse cases in Canadian sport when she agreed to be identified as one of coach Bertrand Charest’s alleged victims. Although Charest was found not guilty of the sex crimes charges against her because they took place outside of Canada, he was found guilty of numerous sex crimes against some of his teammates, who were teenage girls at the time of the crimes, in the 1990s.

She now works to implement safe sport environments, but is desperate for the lack of commitment to hold sports federations accountable for the mental health of their athletes.

Forsyth points out that federations have been slow to adopt mandatory harassment training for athletes, coaches, parents, officials and administrators; adherence to a universal code of conduct; as well as the establishment of an independent committee to study complaints, all solutions put forward by the former Minister of Sports, Kirsty Duncan, in 2019.

Adopting these measures is no guarantee that unhealthy cultures within some federations will be curbed, she warns.

“Policies don’t prevent abuse and complying with those policies doesn’t mean a change has been made,” notes Forsyth. We cannot live in a black or white world when safe sport is in a gray area.”