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Canadian gymnasts demand investigation into “toxic culture” – Toronto Sun

More than 70 former and current athletes and about 30 coaches are said to be signatories to an open letter decrying toxic culture in Canadian gymnastics. Reuters
More than 70 former and current athletes and about 30 coaches are said to be signatories to an open letter decrying toxic culture in Canadian gymnastics. Reuters

Canadian gymnasts are demanding Sport Canada fund an inquiry into their sport’s toxic culture and its perpetuation of sexual, psychological, emotional and verbal abuse.

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More than 70 former and current athletes and about 30 coaches are said to be signatories to an open letter that was published Monday by Global Athlete.

“For almost a decade, the fear of retribution has prevented us and scores of other athletes from speaking out,” the letter states. “However, we can no longer sit in silence. We are coming forward with our experiences of abuse, neglect, and discrimination in hopes of forcing change. We ask Sport Canada to take action to ensure the next generation of Canadian gymnasts is not subject to the physical and psychological trauma that we have had to endure.

“Over the past five years alone, there have been multiple complaints about and even arrests for various forms of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The subjects of these complaints have been Canadian coaches, many of whom we were exposed to as minors at GymCan sponsored training camps, provincial/national competitions, and national team assignments. We know that there are many more examples of harm that have not yet come to light, and we know that abusive behaviours continue in gyms across this country today.”

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Gymnastics Canada CEO Ian Moss did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

Kim Shore, a former gymnast who served on the Gymnastics Canada board and chaired the organization’s Safe Sport committee, is a spokesperson for the athlete group. She said a lack of resources and urgency rendered her work on the committee “disempowering.”

Shore also said it is “too risky” for current athletes to lead the movement in public because their fears of retribution are valid.

“What the athletes would like is an independent inquiry into how the sport is delivered, what the coaches are taught, how the coaches are kept accountable, how does the system support athletes,” said Shore.

“If you come forward with a complaint right now, you run the real risk, especially if it’s against a GymCan-appointed coach, you run the risk of retaliation. So we’re really trying to bring this above any one or two or even 10 athletes who could sort of be labeled whistleblowers or disgruntled, when over 100 people have spoken up together.”

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Shore believes the inquiry should be led by an independent panel comprised of athletes, lawyers, psychologists and other mental health professionals.

“I love the sport. It just needs to be cleaned up. I’ve seen abuse of many different varieties 30 years ago and with my own daughter today. I did not want her to go into gymnastics. I was very reticent. I wasn’t sure of the state of gymnastics because I had been away from the sport for 20 years. When she begged and pleaded we finally said yes and I regret that decision. I thought I could fix the sport before I got to any kind of high level but I couldn’t.”

She said her daughter was subject to verbal and psychological abuse and other children in her group suffered physical abuse.

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“People went to the police in our case here in Calgary and the police didn’t know what to do with it,” said Shore. “And quite frankly, people were so scared that hardly anyone came forward as a witness. We’ve been let down by the legal system recently in gymnastics so many times. The sport has not been adequately supported.”

According to Gymnastics Canada’s website, the organization does not have a Safe Sport director to handle athlete concerns and complaints.

“The current Board and CEO of GymCan have failed to address these issues and have failed to earn the trust and confidence of athletes,” the letter states. “Their inability to adequately respond to ongoing systemic abuse, mistreatment, and discrimination is troubling. For example, the GymCan website says that complaints from gymnasts are currently directed to GymCan CEO Ian Moss, the very individual who wields significant power over athletes’ careers. This is just one illustration of GymCan’s ongoing failure to protect and support its athlete community. Despite GymCan’s lip service to addressing problems, their actions demonstrate an unwillingness and/or inability to change.”

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Olympic gold medalist Kyle Shewfelt, who runs a gymnastics centre in Calgary, supports the athlete group, though he did not sign the letter because his experience was a positive one.

“I had a coach that allowed me agency, independence, allowed me to be a part of the decision-making process. I never felt part of an abusive environment. But I said I would support the athletes in any way I can because I did observe a lot of behaviours that now, being a father of a young daughter and running a gymnastics centre of my own and being a little removed, I can see there were some things within the culture especially on the women’s side of the sport that were certainly concerning and didn’t sit well with me.”

He believes high-performance sport in general has to rethink its methods so that his positive experience can be the norm.

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“The reality is there is a way to create champions and high-performing athletes in a very positive environment where the athletes do have a lot of independence, they have a lot of agency. We don’t need to use fear and manipulation tactics in order to get the athletes to work hard and be great. The athletes want to work hard and be great.”

Shore said gymnastics needs its leaders to show “institutional courage” by transforming the sport into one that supports its athletes and coaches and fosters a positive culture at all levels.

“I have a lot of compassion for coaches, but at the same time they’re dealing with our most vulnerable population. We need to support (coaches) and we also need to be able to call out bad behaviour and deal with it and support them through getting better or exiting the sport.”

The letter states that many athletes who experienced abuse are suffering from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and chronic pain. “We continue to suffer harm while participating in programs run by GymCan, the very organization entrusted with developing and protecting us.”

dbarnes@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/sportsdanbarnes

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