Canadian gymnasts echo growing calls for investigations into abusive practices, toxic culture

Longtime rhythmic gymnast Rosie Cossar recalled a certain Canadian team practice that was scheduled to last five hours but missed it.

He said some of his teammates had fainted from exhaustion. Cossar said the coach kept pressing the play button on their music, and said: “Again.”

Cossar is the captain of the team, and at 18, the only athlete of the age of majority. They are in St. Petersburg, Russia and made an afternoon flight to the World Cup in Ukraine. Cossar tells the coach that they can do nothing more, they will pack up for the flight.

“His reaction was, ‘What makes you think you can change my plans? You think you’re his coach now, okay, you’re his coach now,’ and then he walked out of the gym. And then we were meant to go to the airport on our own. Like him. it just disappeared,” said Cossar, who is now 30 and retired.

Cossar said the incident occurred about a decade ago, but Cossar said the coach, who was not named, was still with Canadian Gymnastics, and the sport was riddled with hundreds of similar complaints, mostly involving minors, about multiple coaches in both. artistic and rhythmic gymnastics.

On Monday, more than 70 gymnasts wrote to Sport Canada requesting an independent investigation into what they say is a toxic culture riddled with abusive practices.

“I really want to emphasize that gymnastics is a children’s sport,” Cossar told The Canadian Press. “We all started when we were very young. I started when I was five years old. You spend more time with your coach than you do with your parents. You travel the world with your coach, sometimes you live with them, it was very intimate.. setting.

“When you grow up in that kind of toxic environment, it has a lasting effect on your life. That’s the stage of your development, you have no sense of identity or self-confidence or about what is right and wrong. You are very vulnerable.”

In their letter to Sport Canada director general Vicki Walker, the athletes said fear of reprisal had prevented them from speaking out for nearly a decade.

“However, we can no longer sit idly by,” they wrote. “We are moving forward with our experience of harassment, neglect and discrimination in the hope of forcing change.”

Abuse complaints leading to suspension, ban

According to the letter, there have been numerous complaints and even arrests for various forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Former Canadian women’s coach Dave Brubaker was banned for life by Gymnastics Canada in 2021 after an internal investigation. Brubaker was found not guilty of sexual assault and sexual exploitation in 2019 after being accused of sexually assaulting a young gymnast several years ago.

Brubaker denies the accusations.

The suspension stays in place.

“We know that there are many more examples of harm yet to come to light, and we know that abusive behavior continues in gyms across this country today,” the gymnasts wrote Monday. “The current board and CEO of GymCan have failed to address this issue and failed to earn the trust and confidence of the athletes.”

Other coaches include Marcel Rene who received a life suspension from Gymnastics Ontario in 2021 and Rima Nikishin who is currently serving a suspension by the Alberta Gymnastics Federation pending an investigation into the complaint. The specific reasons for the two suspensions were never explained by any gymnastics association.

Former coach Michel Arsenault, who has faced multiple charges of assault and sexual assault in connection with five former gymnasts in Montreal, was granted a trial adjournment in 2021 after being suspended by Gymnastics Canada in 2017.

Arsenault denies the accusations

Kim Shore, a former member of Gymnastics Canada’s board of directors, said he’s received calls and emails from more than 100 desperate parents in the past five years.

The accusations about one coach alone included slapping two athletes in the face, plus “pulling hair, forcibly stretching until injury, telling girls they were fat, stupid, ugly, ‘you are so disrespectful, you must be a boy.” Shore said.

“He used to pinch their bottoms to make them clench their cheeks,” Shore said. “He would put his fingers so far apart that their jumpsuits would get caught between their butt cheeks.”

Coaches are still allowed to train gymnasts in Canada.

Gymnastics Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘Problems with how sport is run in Canada’

The gymnasts joined a growing chorus of complaints from athletes in sleds and skeletons to rowing, rugby, track and field, synchronous swimming, wrestling, and women’s soccer.

“Inseparable, if it’s one sport, maybe. But now that we’re seeing four or five sports coming out, there’s a serious problem with how the sport is run in Canada,” said Rob Koehler, who is based in Montreal. director general of Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement founded to address the balance of power between athletes and administrators.

Koehler would like to see a thorough investigation such as the Dubin Inquiry, which investigated Canadian doping in 1989, or the McLaren Report which exposed statewide doping in Russia in 2016.

“Obviously, we’ll see some kind of leadership, I hope,” said Koehler, whose organization helps gymnasts write and present their letter. “I’ve never been 100 per cent confident, but some kind of leadership is saying we need to take a break here and evaluate our current system landscape in Canada to correct mistakes to make sure it never happens again.

“But sport seems more interested in isolating and isolating itself from any scandal than exposing it to make it better. I don’t think this wave of athlete activism will slow down.”

Koehler said the disappointment of about 90 bobsled and skeleton athletes, who a month ago called for the resignation of their acting CEO and high-performance director because of what they say is a toxic and unsafe culture, has barely received a response outside of Sports Minister Pascale St. -Onge plans to conduct a financial audit.

Also, Rowing Canada announced last month that it is planning an independent review of high-performance culture and governance following concerns raised by members of the rowing community in late 2021 and early 2022.

And an independent review of Rugby Canada’s high-performance program paints a damning picture of a dysfunctional organization at odds with its athletes, staff and supporters.

Further worry due to minors in gymnastics

Cossar, who competed for Canada at the 2012 Olympics, said the situation was very concerning in his sport because most of his athletes were minors.

“It took me years to realize that a lot of things were going wrong. I did the sport for 16 years, maybe the last six years of my career was when I started reporting a lot of things,” said Cossar, who says he documented many incidents. harassment and abuse in an email to Gymnastics Canada while he was competing.

“The first 10 years, I was just in the middle of it.”

Shore said the fact that parents were groomed by coaches added to the lack of security, which was a theme in Larry Nassar’s infamous US trial. Nassar is serving a life sentence after sexually assaulting dozens of women and young girls under the guise of medical treatment.

Shore kicked his own daughter out of the sport when she was 13 because of a toxic environment.

He said the letter “came as a result of athletes trying to work with GymCan over the years to improve sport culture and safety.

“Now with over 75 athlete signatures, GymCan can no longer make this about one or two disgruntled athletes,” said Shore. “Add the coaches who have also signed the letter and the more than 100 people, working as a collective body, talking about the toxic environment they train in and the very broken system it perpetuates.”

The letter also concerns several complaints made to Gymnastics Canada CEO Ian Moss, who “holds significant power over athletes’ careers.” The safe sports officer position is currently listed as “vacant” on the organization’s website.

The letter was written by 71 past and present Canadian gymnasts, including Olympians and members of the national team.

Copies were sent to St-Onge, Canadian Olympic Committee president Trisha Smith, Own the Podium CEO Anne Merklinger, and Moss.

Hadwin Floyd

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