Money and medals pressure Canada’s high-performance sport culture

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Hundreds of Canadian athletes, active and retired, catalog the ways the national high performance system has let them down.

Athletes overseen by Gymnastics Canada, Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, Rugby Canada, Rowing Canada and Canada Artistic Swimming have called in recent months for changes ranging from the ousting of leaders and coaches to handling bullying and harassment complaints to rulings opaque taken regarding the selection of athletes. for the teams.

A recent escalation in athlete unrest prompted Canadian Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge to convene an emergency roundtable and announce $16 million in federal budget money for safe sport.

Since St-Onge was appointed sports minister in October, she said there have been reports of mistreatment, sexual abuse or embezzlement against at least eight national sports organizations (NSOs) and expected more. St-Onge called it a crisis.

How did we get here ?

Canada has set medal records at recent Winter and Summer Olympics, but given the recent deluge of athlete discord, what is the price? What causes an erosion of trust between athletes and those who manage them?

“Athletes will tell you over and over 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,” said Bruce, professor emeritus of sport and in public policy at the University of Toronto. Kidd said.

“It’s a pretty heavy burden.”

Some fingers are pointed at Own the Podium, which was established in 2005 after Vancouver and Whistler, B.C. won the bid for the 2010 Winter Games in a bid to get athletes to the podium at home games.

ANP makes funding recommendations based on medal potential and provides technical expertise to national sports organizations.

NSOs own their High Performance Program. This is not OTP’s high performance program.— Anne Merklinger, President and CEO of Own the Podium

The organization currently disburses approximately $70 million of Canada’s annual high performance funding envelope – more than $200 million – to NSOs whose athletes are deemed capable of winning World, Olympic and Paralympic medals to pay competition and training costs.

ANP’s funding recommendations require Federal Minister approval, but ANP is perceived by athletes to have inordinate power over their NSO’s decision-making.

“OTP is an organization with a mandate to help athletes and coaches who want to excel on the world stage,” OTP CEO Anne Merklinger told The Canadian Press. “NSOs own their high performance program. It’s not ANP’s high performance program.

“In Canada, the athletes have had enough”

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

But athletes see training methods go unchallenged if they win.

“I’ve seen everything from emotional abuse in the everyday training environment in terms of teasing, humiliation, overly harsh criticism to the point of literally destroying a person’s sense of self in any confidence they a,” said Carla Edwards, a sports specialist. psychiatrist who works with high performance athletes as a mental health counsellor.

“They were told the words literally ‘you know nothing, you’re nothing’. I think in Canada the athletes have had enough.”

WATCH | Athletes describe the toxic culture at Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton:

Athletes describe a toxic culture at Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton

Canadian bobsleigh and skeleton athletes are calling for the resignation of two top Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton officials following issues with the organization’s handling of safety issues and complaints. 2:19

Fear of losing 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 think it’s a major contributor because it influences the leniency and tolerance given to abusive behavior,” she said.

“I’ve had Olympic coaches tell me ‘mental health is bullshit’. There’s nothing you can tell me that can change my mind. It’s allowed and it’s tolerated, and maybe it’s the way they’ve been trained or the environment they’ve been raised in. It’s the old way of doing things. If they get results, no one questions it.

Canada’s high performance sport system that ties silver to medals predates ANP.

Former Canadian gymnastics coach Dave Brubaker, left, and his wife Elizabeth Brubaker, right, seen above in 2019, have withdrawn their appeal of lifetime bans from the program following allegations of abuse. (Mark Spowart/The Canadian Press)

“Enormous pressure from Sport Canada on NSOs”

The win-at-all-costs mentality produced sprinter Ben Johnson, who had his 100-meter gold medal stripped for doping in 1988, and Canada’s Dubin doping investigation that followed.

“When those public hearings were held, athlete after athlete stood up and said, with respect to doping, much the same thing, ‘the enormous pressure that Sport Canada puts on our NSOs to win or go unfunded, which allows for a culture where doping is encouraged or the people responsible turn a blind eye to doping,” Kidd said.

“The push to just focus on medals and podiums etc created enormous pressure to break the rules and today mistreatment and abuse.”

Alpine skier Allison Forsyth recalls her panic attack and sleepless nights at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where she says she was told clearly that if she didn’t win a medal , Alpine Canada would lose its funding.

“The fact that I, as the third-ranked person in the world, didn’t even care about winning the Salt Lake City Olympics for myself and cared because I felt so much pressure associated with funding is ridiculous. “, said Forsyth.

“To me the podium has made the situation worse in my opinion.”

The subtle ways in which funding or lack thereof can end a career – pursuing a standard of performance while injured or simply quitting because the organization no longer has enough money to support you – are detrimental to grassroots sport. , said Olympic walker Evan Dunfee.

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

WATCH | Canadian gymnasts call for independent investigation of Gymnastics Canada:

Canadian gymnasts demand investigation into abusive practices and toxic culture

Dozens of Canadian gymnasts have signed an open letter calling for an independent investigation into an ongoing toxic culture and abusive practices at Gymnastics Canada. How elite sports are funded based on performance is part of the problem, according to an expert who studies abuse in sport. 2:03

$22,000 in card money

“What happens to these athletes once they leave the sport? Do they turn around and give back to the sport? If they leave the sport under bad conditions, there are strong Chances are they will be lost forever Do you lose a volunteer, because it’s extremely important, and do you lose a role model?If the answer is yes, what are the long-term implications?

“What would it take to change the funding model so that the goal is for athletes to leave sport in a positive way and turn around and give back. What does that model look like? How much does funding need to change to give the priority to that as a measure of success?

For many athletes representing Canada at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the approximately $22,000 they receive annually in Athlete Assistance Program money, also known as carding money, is the primary means of food and shelter while they pursue physical, mental and emotional activities. excellence on the world stage.

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

“I think we’re in a strange sort of halfway house here. We seem a bit caught between professional sport and amateur sport, wanting results, but some of those sports aren’t getting the funding they want. or probably deserve.”

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

Forsyth now works in the field of safe sport. She despairs at the lack of mechanisms and the superficial implementation of those that exist to get national sports organizations to take real ownership of the mental and emotional well-being of their athletes.

Government slow to implement mandated changes, Forsyth says

She says NSOs have been slow to adopt mandatory harassment and abuse training for athletes, coaches, parents, officials, administrators, adhering to a universal code of conduct and creating an independent third party to investigate complaints – all decreed in 2019 by Kirsty Duncan, then Canada’s sports minister.

“It has taken far too long for the government to put in place the prescribed changes,” Forsyth said. “When those three mandatory requirements came into play, honestly, I didn’t see a fully implemented NSO with them until about last year. So they were too slow to get them in place as well. “

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

“I wasn’t a decision-maker in any of those cases and the whole time I kept saying, ‘it won’t work’ because they weren’t focused on the culture,” he said. she declared.

“I will say all the time that policies don’t prevent abuse and compliance doesn’t equal change. We can’t live in a black and white world where sport and safe culture are all grey.

“There are issues with what I call the gray area of ​​safe sport that no one has focused on, which is normalizing behaviors, cultural conditioning.”

Russell Reimer, whose agency represents several Olympians, says it’s time to ask some tough questions about how they are being treated in the pursuit of medals.

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


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