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French skate coach faces probe into sexual abuse of minors claims

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Paris (AFP)

French prosecutors opened an investigation into claims of rape and sexual abuse of minors in figure skating on Tuesday as details emerged of allegations made 20 years ago against the coach at the heart of the case.

The probe, hailed as a "strong signal" by French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu and in which "the words of the victims must be heard", will focus on claims made by former world championship bronze medallist Sarah Abitbol.

In her autobiography published last week, Abitbol accused coach Gilles Beyer of raping her several times from 1990 to 1992 when she was between the ages of 15 and 17.

"He (Beyer) started to do horrible things leading to sexual abuse and I was raped at 15," said Abitbol, now 44, in a video interview with L'Obs.

The investigation will also "attempt to identify all the other victims who suffered... offences of the same nature", Paris-based prosecutor Remy Heitz said.

Abitbol's claims coincided with sports daily L'Equipe publishing an investigation in which three other skaters accused Beyer and two other coaches, Jean-Roland Racle and Michel Lotz, of abuse and rape when they were minors.

Further allegations of underage sexual abuse emerged from former swimmers and tennis players.

On Friday, 62-year-old Beyer admitted to having had "intimate" and "inappropriate" relations with Abitbol, telling AFP he was "sincerely sorry".

"I acknowledge having had intimate relationships with her," Beyer said in a statement.

"If my memories of the exact circumstances differ from hers, I am aware that, given my duties and her age at the time, these relationships were inappropriate."

Racle has denied the accusations while Lotz has not commented.

Sports Minister Maracineanu has called for the president of France's ice skating federation, Didier Gailhaguet, to resign, saying he "cannot absolve himself of his moral and personal responsibility".

But after a meeting at the federation's Paris headquarters on Tuesday, Gailhaguet said he would not make a decision on whether to step down until the investigation had concluded.

"I, as federation president, will await the result of this investigation before making any decision on the resignation the sports minister asked for," the 66-year-old said.

- Powerful figure -

Maracineanu, a former swimming world champion, does not have the power to sack Gailhaguet but has intimated that the federation would face state sanctions if he remains.

Gailhaguet, who is due to hold a press conference on Wednesday, has been the most influential man in French ice skating since he first became president in 1998, some years after the alleged offences.

He has headed the federation ever since apart from a three-year hiatus between 2004 and 2007 which followed a judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

He was suspended by the International Skating Union for three years from 2002 and duly gave up, temporarily, the presidency of the French federation.

Gailhaguet's accession to the presidency opened the door for Beyer to take charge of the French national team.

Two years later, another skater made a complaint against Beyer which was followed up at ministry level but not acted on by prosecutors.

The report of that investigation, which has been seen by AFP, shows that Gailhaguet was aware of the nature of the allegations against Beyer.

In a letter addressed to him and dated February 8, 2000, the parents of a young skater outline Beyer's inappropriate behaviour towards their daughter, who was 17, during a training camp.

According to the letter which relates to an incident in July 1999, Beyer was "under the effects of alcohol" when he sat on the girl's bed. After talking he said he would leave but asked if he could kiss her. She declined.

"It would be desirable, not to say essential ... that this gentleman never again gets close to adolescent skaters who are minors," the parents said in the letter.

Beyer did not comment on those claims when contacted by AFP.

The 2000 inquiry led the sports ministry to remove him from his technical role at the federation, but he remained a coach at club level and held an executive position at the federation until 2018.

On Tuesday, former Olympic champion Gwendal Peizerat, who won the 2002 ice dance gold with Marina Anissina, said the revelations were "the tip of the iceberg".

"We're talking about rape, harassment ... Didier Gailhaguet is not the moral example we should be showing our children," said Peizerat, who unsuccessfully challenged Gailhaguet as skating chief in a 2014 election.

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