athletes

“It’s Beyond Frustrating”: Why Athletes are Still Being Abused

The Olympics are supposed to be an exciting and enjoyable experience, for athletes and for spectators. But for figure skating fans, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing could best be characterized as stressful and depressing.

After the team event – the first skating event on the schedule – it was revealed that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the favourite to win the women’s event, had previously tested positive for a banned drug intended to treat chest pain. After an emergency hearing by the Court for Arbitration in Sport, Valieva was allowed to continue competing, but the medals in the team event were not awarded. Valieva ended up placing fourth in the women’s event, and her teammate Alexandra Trusova, who came second, had an emotional meltdown at rinkside, shouting that she hated skating and would never go on the ice again.

While watching all of this drama and turmoil unfold, I couldn’t help but think that for almost 30 years we’ve known there were problems in the sport of skating. In 1995, sportswriter Joan Ryan’s book Little Girls In Pretty Boxes painted a terrible picture of abusive coaching, unhealthy training practices, and incredible stress placed on young figure skaters and gymnasts. Thankfully, as an adult skater, I got into the sport when I was old enough to be in control of what I did. But it’s no secret to anyone who follows skating that, even after well-documented investigations like those in Ryan’s book, there are still very significant problems within the sport.

So I decided to get in touch with Ryan and see if she would be willing to be interviewed about whether anything has changed, 30 years after her whistleblowing. She kindly agreed, and we talked this week. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

 

Fiona McQuarrie [FM]: What’s your take on the doping scandal at the Olympics?

Joan Ryan [JR]: The Washington Post asked me to write an op-ed on that a couple of weeks ago, and, you know, I wrote this book 27 years ago now. There has been change on the gymnastics side, unfortunately because of Larry Nassar, and because of the gymnasts themselves. They have risen up like an army, and they are the ones that are going to make sure it finally changes. That’s the only reason I have any hope that it’s going to change now after all these years.

I haven’t followed figure skating as closely over those 27 years, but the US skaters certainly seem healthier to me. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but clearly the total destruction of two of the three Russian figure skaters is a clear sign that it’s dysfunctional. There’s clearly (more…)

Accusations and Investigations

This is a post that I really didn’t want to write, but now I feel I have to.

It’s a very difficult time in my sport of figure skating. In mid-December, an allegation of misconduct by a skater was filed with the US Centre for SafeSport. SafeSport is an independent regulatory organization, funded by sport federations; its mandate includes training, education, and outreach, but it is also responsible for investigating complaints of sexual misconduct against athletes in Olympic and Paralympic sports. SafeSport can’t charge someone with a crime – although it does require any reports of criminal acts to also be reported to police – but if it believes, after an investigation, that the allegations are accurate, there are several types of penalties it can impose, including banning the abuser from the sport.

The allegation filed with SafeSport involved John Coughlin, a coach, broadcast commentator, and two-time US champion in pairs skating. As a result of the allegation, SafeSport temporarily restricted Coughlin’s “ability to participate in the sport”. In early January, according to USA Today reporter Christine Brennan, two more allegations against Coughlin were filed with SafeSport, and on January 17, SafeSport imposed an interim suspension on Coughlin. An interim suspension, according to SafeSport’s definitions, means that the “covered individual” (the subject of the allegations) cannot “participate in any activity or competition” authorized by or sanctioned by the US Olympic Committee or the sport’s governing body, “pending final resolution of the matter”. On January 18, Coughlin took his own life.

This very sad series of events has led to a lot of discussion about norms and cultures within the sport of skating, the rights of the accuser and the accused during investigations of alleged abuse, and the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the processes that are supposed to protect athletes. After Coughlin passed away, the US Figure Skating Association asked SafeSport to continue with its investigation of the three allegations. SafeSport subsequently announced that while it does not comment on individual cases, it “cannot advance an investigation when no potential threat exists”, and ended its investigation. While I can understand why SafeSport made that choice – I’ll explain why in a while – abandoning the investigation may only (more…)