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Jeanson, Forsythe among testifying athletes as safe sport study continues

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Canadian Genevieve Jeanson cycles through the third lap of the UCI World Cup at the UCI World Cup in Montreal on Saturday, May 31, 2003. Jeanson and Allison Forsythe, an Olympic skier, sexual abuse victim and co-founder of ITP Sport, a safe sport consulting and program agency, were among witnesses who testified on another emotional day for the Status of Women's study on the safety of sport for women and girls. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andre Pichette

Genevieve Jeanson's story began, she said, when her coach first hit her on the head in training at the age of 14.

The Canadian cyclist said in testimony in front of members of Parliament on Monday — apologizing for her blunt language — that the physical abuse turned to sexual assault by the age of 15, and that she was first administered performance enhancing drugs at 16.

A positive doping test would ultimately be her escape.

"(I received) threats like 'I'm in love with you, and if you leave me, I'm going to kill you, and then I'm going to commit suicide,'" Jeanson said. "I was never the same person after that first sexual assault. Because I was living in constant violence, I actually believed that he could kill me and that he could commit suicide. It was so real that I couldn't leave."

Jeanson and Allison Forsythe, an Olympic skier, sexual abuse victim and co-founder of ITP Sport, a safe sport consulting and program agency, were among witnesses who testified on another emotional day for the House of Commons status of women committee's study on the safety of sport for women and girls.

Jeanson, whose life was the subject of the 2014 movie "The Little Queen," became a lightning rod in cycling after admitting she used performance enhancing drugs.

She said she was first prescribed EPO for anemia at age 16. But what was to be a few injections led to "career-long doping," and the lifetime ban in 2009 of her coach André Aubut and doctor Maurice Duquette by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.

"In less than two years, I became a victim of abuse, a cheater and, because doping is illegal in sports, a criminal in the world I lived in, all that at 16," said Jeanson, who raced in the 2000 Olympics. "I was a teenager without an escape route, with no one to talk to, and no one to help me."

She said she considered crashing her bike as a way out. But her exit came with a failed doping test in 2005 and 10-year ban.

"I swear failing that drug test was the best thing that had ever happened to me . . . it meant that I could finally stop cycling and leave my coach," she said. "A positive drug test was just a small inconvenience and comparison to the hell I was living in. Having my name tarnished forever was a cheap price to pay to finally get rid of him."

Forsythe, a two-time Olympian, led a class-action lawsuit claiming female athletes on the Canadian ski team were subjected to assault and abuse from 1996 to '98. The case revolved around coach Bertrand Charest who was found guilty in 2017 on 37 sex-related charges — later reduced to 16 — stemming from the complaints of nine women.

He was initially sentenced to a 12-year prison term, which was reduced by 21 months.

"The impacts of my sexual abuse experience cannot be summed up in a few minutes," Forsythe said Monday. "Extreme grooming, horrific sexual assaults, mental coercion and psychological abuse are some of the immense physical and mental burdens I still live with each day."

Forsythe noted it was 17 years before her perpetrator was caught.

"For years, I lived with anger, depression, shame, self-blame, and chronic PTSD," she said. "And yes, I made the Olympics. And yes, I became an eight-time Canadian champion. Success does not automatically translate to happiness or health. . . I would give back every medal I ever (won) to have prevented what happened to me from happening to me."

Forsythe broke down recounting the two-and-a-half-year criminal trial, during which she had to testify 36 hours after giving birth to her daughter.

"And bringing her in the room with me, so I could take breaks to breastfeed during cross-examination," she said. "I will never get back my daughter's first week of life."

Forsythe said abuse in sport isn't always sexual in nature and mentioned working with hockey and football coaches to get rid of "bag skates" and "suicides" as forms of punishment in practices.

"These coaches will almost always respond to me with, 'Well, I was bag skated so it can't be that bad,'" she said. "To which I respond, "Well, yes, and 25 years ago, after an athlete was knocked unconscious, we gave them sniffing salts and sent them back on the ice.'"

She said abuse goes beyond the coach-athlete relationship.

"(Referees) are tired of being chased home by angry parents," she said. "I'm even on the bench, at my own son's hockey game, watching parents fist-fight in the stands and yell profanities at the refs. Just last week, as a parent was ejected from a game for ref abuse, this parent left and in front of dozens of 11-year-old athletes called out, 'Hey ref, why don't you just go kill yourself?'"

The study comes after hundreds of Canadian athletes have lobbied the government for an independent investigation into the toxic environment in sport, and six months after the launch of the federal government's new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), meant to be a central hub for safe sport complaints.

Many have argued OSIC isn't truly independent and doesn't have the power needed to fix Canada's safe sport crisis. Forsythe said Monday that its American counterpart, the U.S. Center for SafeSport, has had informed victims it could be two years before they'll receive a reply.

Marie-Claude Asselin, the CEO of the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, which is home to OSIC, defended the new office.

"We agree with victims and survivors who claim that the program has its limitations," said Asselin. "Less than six months since its opening, it is indeed in its infancy. Yet, it is unfair not to give it a chance. It is built on solid grounds. And it would be certainly beneficial for it to have greater powers such as the power of subpoena the right to maintain a public registry of sanctions and immunity for its professionals.

"No one is denying that horrific abuses took place and still do," she added. "Given the right powers and proper resources . . . I assure you that the SDRCC and OSIC can absolutely achieve their safe-sport mandate."

While a national registry of abusers has been mentioned throughout testimony, Asselin said Canada is hamstrung by its privacy laws.

Bloc Québécois MP Andreanne Larouche tabled a motion recently following question period in the House of Commons asking the federal government to commit to a public inquiry into sport. The Liberals rejected the request.

Asked Monday if they supported such an inquiry, the witnesses were on the fence.

"I can't give you a yes or no, because it depends," Forsythe said. "We have limited funds, and I want that to go more, first and foremost, towards prevention. . . I don't know enough about it."

"I would say my only condition is, because the commission is going to take several years, several months, like the Dubin commission (into performance-enhancing drugs) took more than a year-and-a-half," Asselin said. "In the meantime, victims need to have a place to stay."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press