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Skating rape accusations ‘only the tip of the iceberg’ for French sport

Sarah Abitbol, a 10-time French figure skating champion, has accused her former coach of raping her when she was aged 15 to 17.
Sarah Abitbol, a 10-time French figure skating champion, has accused her former coach of raping her when she was aged 15 to 17. © Jacques Demarthon, AFP

French sport officials used to claim they had fewer sex abuse scandals than others because their flagging system worked better. With that belief now shattered, the government is promising forceful action to tackle a crisis roiling France’s ice skating federation.

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When former sports minister Laura Flessel stated in late 2017, at the height of the #MeToo backlash, that “there is no code of silence in French sport”, her claim prompted dismay among experts in the field, who had long warned that widespread abuse was taking place under a veil of secrecy.

Just over two years later, the #MeToo wave has finally caught up with French sport, threatening to submerge the longtime head of France’s skating federation, nicknamed “the Unsinkable”.

On Monday, Flessel’s successor Roxana Maracineanu summoned Didier Gailhaguet, the boss of French ice sports for over two decades, over a spate of rape accusations that have rattled the figure skating world, and demanded his resignation.

The move followed days of explosive revelations set in motion by 10-time national skating champion Sarah Abitbol, who accused her former coach – himself a former champion – of raping her in the early 1990s, when she was aged 15 to 17.

On Wednesday, the day Abitbol released a book detailing her ordeal, sports daily L’Equipe ran a lengthy report into sexual abuse in skating, swimming and tennis. Under the headline “The End of Omerta (code of silence)”, the newspaper published the accounts of three other skaters who accused the same coach, and two others, of abuse and rape when they were minors.

"The weight of facts and their continuation over time illustrate that a general dysfunction exists within the federation," Maracineanu told reporters after Monday’s talks. "Didier Gailhaguet cannot absolve himself of his moral and personal responsibility, so I have asked him to assume all his responsibilities and resign."

Brandishing further threats, the minister said she would refer the matter to the public prosecutor "so that a criminal investigation can be conducted", threatened to withdraw state recognition of the federation, and promised to help in the creation of an "association of victims".

Gailhaguet made only a limited apology as he left the ministry, saying: "I made mistakes, not errors." Asked if he would resign, he added: "We'll think about all that." 

The next day, prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation into the allegations made by Abitbol and others. In addition, the probe "will aim to identify all the other victims who may have suffered similar abuse", Paris prosecutor Rémy Heitz said in a statement.

‘Run like a mafia’

Coming just a week after a French court jailed tennis coach Andrew Geddes for 18 years for raping four underage players, the shocking allegations are hardly a surprise, says Philippe Liotard, a sociologist at the University of Lyon, who has written numerous articles on sexual abuse in sport.

“Rumours of what happens in skating have been circulating for some time now,” Liotard told FRANCE 24. “What is interesting is that there are now people willing to listen to these accounts, including in the media.”

According to Professor Greg Décamps, who heads the psychology department at Bordeaux University, experts have been arguing for years “that these things happen in all sports and all federations”, with French skating marking “a particularly sordid case”.

“On one side you have a federation run like a mafia, where managers cover, protect and threaten each other,” he says of the skating federation. “And on the other you have the victims, who were silenced, and the others who knew what was happening but were too scared to speak out.”

In her book and in an interview with French weekly L’Obs, Abitbol said she had repeatedly tried to flag her coach’s behaviour but was “faced with an organised silence”. She added: “Basically, everyone said to me ‘Take your meds and be quiet!’ I obeyed. I took my meds and I fell silent.”

The former skater, now 44, told L’Obs that after she retired she mentioned her claims against her coach to the then minister of sport, Jean-Francois Lamour, who allegedly replied: “Yes, we have a file on him, but we’re going to close our eyes.”

The former minister told the French weekly he did not remember this conversation.

Abitbol’s coach, Gilles Beyer, continued his career as director of the French team and national coach for several more years. According to L’Equipe, he was the subject of two investigations in the early 2000s, following complaints by parents. After the second inquest, the sports ministry terminated his contract as a technical advisor, but he continued coaching in another capacity and remained close to the skating federation, whose president Didier Gailhaguet declined to comment when contacted by the press.

On Friday, Beyer admitted to having had "intimate" and "inappropriate" relations with the former skating champion, telling AFP he was "sincerely sorry". The confession prompted a swift rebuke from Abitbol, who stressed that her coach had not confessed to raping her.

At their coaches’ mercy

Commentators have described the revelations rocking the skating federation as “just the tip of the iceberg”, noting that other sports also have a dismal record when it comes to cases of sex abuse and acting upon them.

Late last year, the investigative website Disclose published a report documenting 77 cases of “major dysfunctions” across 28 different sports. The cases involved at least 276 victims, most of them children under the age of 15.

Young athletes are particularly vulnerable, says Décamps, noting that youths eager for sporting success can easily end up under the thumb of coaches, many of them former champions idolized by their would-be successors.

“All sportsmen and women fear for their careers,” he explains. “Some even persuade themselves that enduring such abuse is a necessary step on the path to winning gold, because ‘everyone has been through this’. They want to be accompanied and coached from A to Z by someone who can turn them into champions, and to attain this objective they are willing to be ‘rough-handled’. This creates a context in which a coach’s influence can easily morph into something sinister.”

Liotard likens athletes’ submission to their coaches’ authority to that of ballet dancers and pupils in the most competitive music schools. The fact that trainers help “shape” and “transform” young athletes’ bodies can sometimes foster ambiguity.

“Sport can expose youths to intimate relationships with adults: training sessions can stretch late into the evening, coaches often drive the kids home, and then there’s the nights spent in hotels for away games,” he adds.   

Flagging abuse

Stamping out any possible ambiguity is the aim of a “charter of good conduct” drawn up by the NGO Colosse aux pieds d’argile, or "Giant with feet of clay". Distributed to schools and academies across the country, the charter lists 16 things a coach should never do, such as showering with youths or placing them on the front seat of their car.

“If our charter is respected by both the children and their coaches no-one will find themselves in a position of danger,” says the NGO’s founder Sébastien Boueilh, a former rugby player who was himself abused in his youth.

In seven years of touring primary and secondary schools in metropolitan France and overseas, Boueilh says he is yet to visit a single establishment without meeting a victim of abuse. “Last year we visited 300 institutions,” he says, “and in each one at least two people opened up about their experiences.”

The former rugbyman is hoping more people will speak out in the wake of Abitbol’s revelations, including officials – most of them male, like the coaches – in France’s 92 sports federation and the thousands of clubs, both professional and amateur, spread across the country.

“Some clubs and federations prefer to ‘move’ the problem elsewhere rather than report it, so as not to tarnish their name and their sport,” he explains.

According to Disclose’s findings, in 77% of cases the perpetrators of sexual abuse were able to continue their job while a judicial investigation was pending, or switch to another post following a criminal conviction – despite the fact that it is illegal for people found guilty of a sexual offense to coach minors.

To ensure problems are properly flagged, Décamps says “the government must provide officials with guarantees that their careers will not be affected when they report cases of sexual abuse”.

Swimming champ raises hopes

Décamps and other experts have been invited to attend a conference organised by Sports Minister Maracineanu on February 20 to discuss ways to tackle sex abuse in sports, including by tightening controls on coaches, many of them volunteers.

French sport is heavily reliant on the personal investment of some 3.5 million volunteer workers, from the directors of small sports clubs to the drivers who accompany children to competitions. In their case, the lack of a legal framework makes it hard to weed out past offenders. Volunteers wishing to coach an amateur team need not produce a criminal record, nor are their employers required to check the national register for sex offenders.

“We are talking about paedophilia, clearly about inadmissible things in society,” Maracineanu, France’s first swimming world champion, told French state radio in the wake of the Abitbol revelations. “In sport it is even less acceptable since parents, each year, confidently entrust their children without asking themselves this question. They need to be able to continue doing that,” she added.

Her commitment marks a welcome change of tack for the likes of Boueilh, long accustomed to government inaction.

Arguing that her predecessors had done “precious little”, he added: “It is heartening to see we finally have a minister who has decided to take the bull by the horns.”

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