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Money, medals putting pressure on Canadian high-performance sport culture

Athletes, observers raising questions about how some Canadians are treated in the pursuit of medals
Canadian sisters Justine Dufour-Lapointe, left, and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe, right, show off their gold and silver medals from women’s freestyle moguls after the medal ceremony at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia on Sunday, February 9, 2014.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Hundreds of Canadian athletes, active and retired, are cataloguing the ways in which the national high-performance system has failed them.

Athletes overseen by Gymnastics Canada, Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, Rugby Canada, Rowing Canada and Artistic Swimming Canada have called in recent months for changes ranging from the ouster of leaders and coaches to the handling of bullying and harassment complaints to the opaque decisions made around athlete selection for teams.

A recent acceleration of athlete unrest prompted Canadian Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge to call an emergency roundtable and the announcement of $16 million in the federal budget in safe-sport money.

Since St-Onge was appointed sports minister in October, she said there have been reports of maltreatment, sexual abuse or misuse of funds levelled at least eight national sport organizations and expected more. St-Onge called it a crisis.

How did it get to this?

Canada has posted record-setting medal hauls in recent Winter and Summer Olympic Games, but given the recent barrage of athlete discord, what’s the price of that? What’s causing an erosion of trust between athletes and those who manage them?

“Athletes will tell you again and again that they’re not competing for themselves, for their coaches. They’re also competing for the funding of their sports, the future of their sports,” University of Toronto sport and public policy professor emeritus Bruce Kidd said.

“That’s a pretty heavy burden.”

Some fingers are pointed at Own The Podium (OTP), which was established in 2005 after Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., won the bid for the 2010 Winter Games with the goal of getting athletes on the podium at a home Games.

OTP makes funding recommendations based on medal potential, as well as providing technical expertise to national sport organizations (NSOs).

The organization currently directs about $70 million of Canada’s annual high-performance funding envelope — which is more than $200 million — to the NSOs with athletes deemed capable of winning world, Olympic and Paralympic medals to pay for competition and training costs

OTP’s funding recommendations require federal ministerial approval, but OTP is perceived by athletes as having outsized power over their NSO’s decision-making.

“OTP is one organization whose mandate is to help those athletes and coaches that want to excel on the world stage,” OTP chief executive officer Anne Merklinger told The Canadian Press. “The NSOs own their high-performance program. It’s not OTP’s high-performance program.

“Every participant in sport in our country should have the opportunity to train and compete at the level that they want to in a safe, supportive environment.”

But athletes see coaching methods going unquestioned if they win.

“I’ve seen it all from psychological abuse in the daily training environment in terms of teasing, humiliation, excessively harsh criticism to the point of literally destroying a person’s sense of self in any confidence that they have,” said Carla Edwards, a sports psychiatrist who works with high-performance athletes as a mental health adviser.

“They’ve been told the words literally ‘you don’t know anything, you are nothing.’ I think, in Canada, the athletes have had enough.”

The fear of lost funding can breed an organizational culture of not reporting problems and looking the other way, or quick fixes that don’t address fallout or systemic issues, Edwards said.

“I do think it is a major contributor because it influences the leniency and the tolerance that is given to abusive behaviours,” she said.

“I’ve had Olympic coaches say to me ‘mental health is bullshit.’ There’s nothing that you can tell me that’s going to change my mind.’ That’s permitted and it’s tolerated and it comes from maybe the way they were coached or the environment that they were brought up in. It’s the old way of doing things. If they get results, no one questions it.”

Canada’s high-performance sport system tying money to medals predates OTP.

The mentality of winning at all costs produced sprinter Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his 100-metre gold medal for doping in 1988, and Canada’s subsequent Dubin Inquiry into doping.

“When those public hearings were held, athlete after athlete stood up and said, with respect to doping, pretty much the same thing, ‘the enormous pressure from Sport Canada on our NSOs to win or not be funded … that is enabling a culture where doping is encouraged or the responsible people turn a blind eye to doping,’” Kidd said.

“The incentive of focusing only on medals and podium finishes and so on created enormous pressure for rule-breaking and today, maltreatment and abuse.”

Alpine skier Allison Forsyth recalls her anxiety attack and sleepless nights at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where she says it was made clear to her if she didn’t win a medal, Alpine Canada would lose funding.

“The fact that I, as someone who was ranked third in the world, did not even care about winning in the Olympics in Salt Lake City for myself and I cared because I felt so much pressure associated with funding is ridiculous,” Forsyth said.

“Own The Podium made it worse in my opinion.”

The subtle ways funding or lack thereof can end a career — chasing a performance standard while injured or simply quitting because the organization no longer has enough money to support you — is detrimental to grassroots sport, Olympic race walker Evan Dunfee said.

“Funding is sort of inextricable from so many of these reasons why so many athletes end up leaving a sport potentially before their time,” he said.

“What happens to these athletes once they’re out of the sport? Are they turning around and giving back to the sport? If they’re leaving the sport on not-great terms, there’s a good chance they’re lost forever. Are you losing a volunteer, because that’s desperately important … and are you losing a role model? If the answer is yes, what are the long-term implications of that?

“What would it take to change the funding model so that the goal is athletes leaving the sport positively and turning around and giving back. What does that model look like? How much does the funding have to change to prioritize that as a measure of success?”

For many athletes representing Canada at Olympic and Paralympic Games, the roughly $22,000 they get annually in Athletes’ Assistance Program money, also known as carding money, is the primary financial means of how they feed and house themselves while they pursue physical, mental and emotional excellence on a world stage.

“What any athlete wants is they want to feel valued,” rugby sevens Olympian Nathan Hirayama said.

“I think we’re in a weird kind of halfway house here. We do seem kind of caught in this place between professional sport and amateur sport, wanting results yet some of these sports are not getting the funding they want or probably deserve.”

Forsyth brought to light an example of appalling abuse in sport when she came forward as an alleged victim of national women’s ski coach Bertrand Charest. While Charest was found not guilty of alleged sexual crimes against her because of jurisdiction — the alleged incidents occurred outside of Canada — he was convicted of several sex-related charges involving her teammates who were teenagers at the time of the offences in the 1990s.

Forsyth now works in the field of safe sport. She despairs of the lack of mechanisms, and shallow implementation of those that are there, to make national sport organizations take real ownership of their athletes’ mental and emotional well-being.

She says NSOs were slow to adopt the mandatory harassment and abuse training for athletes, coaches, parents, officials, administrators, the adherence to a universal code of conduct and the establishment of an independent third-party to investigate complaints — all decreed in 2019 by then-Canadian sport minister Kirsty Duncan.

“It took the government far too long to put in place the mandated changes,” Forsyth said. “When those three mandatory requirements came into play, honestly, I didn’t see an NSO completely set up with them until about last year. So they were too slow also putting them in place.”

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed implementation. Ticking those boxes isn’t the cure for cultural rot either, said Forsyth, who has volunteered to sit on safe-sport advisory committees.

“I was not a decision-maker in any of those and the whole time I kept saying, ‘this is not going to work’ because they were not focused on the culture,” she said.

“I will say all the time, policies do not prevent abuse and compliance does not equal change. We cannot live in a black and white world when safe sport and culture is all grey.

“There are issues with what I call the grey zone of safe sport that nobody has focused on, which is the normalization of behaviours, the cultural conditioning.”

Russell Reimer, whose agency represent several Olympians, says it is time to ask hard questions about how they’re treated in the pursuit of medals.

“There are now so many casualties of this approach that we have to ask literally the biggest single question: why are we doing this if it creates so many casualties in sport?” he said.

—Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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