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Canadian bobsled, skeleton athletes repeat calls to St-Onge to improve toxic culture

Canadians race down the track during the men's two-man bobsled at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea on February 18, 2018. More than 90 current and retired Canadian bobsled and skeleton athletes are renewing their call for action from federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge to help clean up what they say is a toxic climate in their national sport organization. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

More than 90 current and retired Canadian bobsled and skeleton athletes are renewing their call for action from federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge to help clean up what they say is a toxic climate in their national sport organization.

The BCS Athlete for Change group originally wrote a public letter in March calling for the resignations of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS) president Sarah Storey and high-performance director Chris Le Bihan.

The athletes said in a letter sent Friday to St-Onge that systemic issues have plagued BCS for the eight years since Storey was elected.

"These issues continue to go unacknowledged and unresolved by the organization," they wrote. "In this time, we have seen the increasing deterioration across both sports of day-to-day operations, athlete participation at the national and grassroots level, overall performance and competitiveness on the international stage, and culture within the organization."

A BCS spokesperson said Friday there would be no comment on the letter.

Friday's letter included a 24-page collection of issues and lived or observed athlete experiences, which was presented to BCS's board of directors. It included claims such as a fear of retaliation that silences athletes under a leadership style that "feels authoritarian," and the badmouthing of athletes in front of other staff and athletes. 

A "top-ranked skeleton athlete was ridiculed in front of other bobsleigh and skeleton athletes constantly," according to the document, and a skeleton staff member allegedly made unprofessional and inappropriate comments to coaches and athletes, including sending texts to athletes with sexual undertones.

"To date, nothing in this document has been addressed or remedied," the letter said.

The letter also included findings from a recent review and evaluation of BCS commissioned by Own the Podium. The evaluation involved anonymous surveys plus facilitated discussions with BCS staff, coaches and athletes to understand the issues and identify gaps.

"The findings align with the issues brought forward in our March 2022 letter, and (the 24-page summary of issues)," the letter said.

Also included was a report determination letter from the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner. In response to a July 24 submission from Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton Athletes for Change, OSIC said it does not have jurisdiction to proceed with information submitted in the report, since BCS is not a program signatory.

St-Onge has said that NSOs will be required to sign on with OSIC to be eligible for federal funding, but so far Volleyball Canada and Weightlifting Canada are the only two NSOs who have.

"The OSIC's jurisdiction to administer complaints is limited to issues raised with respect to individuals who . . . are under the authority of a program signatory organization," OSIC wrote in its determination. "The organization listed in your report, Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, is not a program signatory and the OSIC therefore does not have the authority to further consider issues regarding its individual participants."

The athletes say the current participation at the national and grassroots level in both bobsled and skeleton is "concerningly low," and noted that in 2019 bobsled saw the departure of three-time Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries to the U.S. There's an exodus of current athletes, they say, who are choosing to compete for other countries. 

"The ongoing lack of acknowledgement and action to address any of these concerns is continuing to create long-term, detrimental harm to the sports of bobsleigh and skeleton in Canada," the letter said. 

The letter comes amid what St-Onge has called a safe sport "crisis" in Canada.

Hockey Canada has been mired in sexual assault allegations that has seen numerous sponsors withdraw their support and St-Onge freeze their federal funding. 

Hundreds of former and current Canadian gymnasts have been pleading with St-Onge to help clean up their sport amid claims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse of athletes, many of them minors.

"We have witnessed the public and political outcry from the current Hockey Canada scandals and heard from our political leaders that the way sport and NSOs (national sport organizations) have operated in Canada with a lack of respect, safety, governance and accountability will no longer be acceptable. 

"The current leadership and administrative staff at BCS have shown an unwillingness to acknowledge and addressed they issues . . . and therefore cannot be entrusted to fix the organization going forward," the letter said.

The bobsled and skeleton letter asks St-Onge to look beyond funding freezes to influence change, as that would only exacerbate the negative effects to athletes.

The letter was also sent to OTP's CEO Anne Merklinger, David Shoemaker, the CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Vicki Walker, the director general of Sport Canada, and Brian Rahill, OTP's bobsleigh/skeleton representative.  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 12, 2022. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press