French investigation exposes 'code of silence' around allegedly abusive ice skating coaches
The French sports ministry says more than 20 coaches have been identified in an investigation into alleged sexual abuse and verbal or physical violence in the country's ice sports federation and its clubs.
"The volume of cases identified is indicative of practices and behaviours that have been replicated through generations of coaches", the ministry said in a press release. "It is unparalleled internationally."
Out of the 21 coaches, 12 are allegedly accused of "harassment or sexual assault", three of whom have previously been sentenced to prison or handed suspended sentences. Seven other cases concern "physical or verbal violence".
The inquiry was launched this February after ice-skating champion Sarah Abitbol accused her ex-coach of raping her in the 1990s. In her book titled 'Such a Long Silence', she says her former coach Gilles Beyer of raped and sexually assaulted her several times between 1990 and 1992.
After Abitbol's book was published other skaters came forward to denounce trainers who allegedly sexually abused them when they were teenagers.
The revelations eventually led to the resignation of the head of France's ice sports federation, Didier Gailhaguet.
A code of silence
After analysing witness statements left on a dedicated government platform investigators believe that "a strong concentration of powers involving only very few managers and technical executives" may have contributed to the creation of a "code of silence" around the coaches accused of abuses. And, this may have led to the "absence of disciplinary procedures, or even simple investigations".
The probe also highlights a "real alcohol problem" among some coaches and that alcohol may be used as a form of early initiation for young athletes.
The inquiry has already led to two reports to the public prosecutor and one of the coaches was placed in pre-trial detention in February while five others were banned from coaching in April.
For Philippe Liotard, a sports sociologist, the authorities in charge of the investigation have not gone far enough, he says there is a real need for coaches to be properly trained to work with young people.
He said that "ice-skating is a specific sport practised by very young people and coaches can be particularly firm with the skaters. This makes it difficult for the young skaters to go against their authority".
The report advises the ice skating federation to establish a code of ethics to compel affiliated clubs to communicate any reports of acts of violence committed by managers or coaches.
The second phase of the investigation, which has yet to be finalised, will focus on the role of the financial and administrative management teams and will seek to determine whether they can be held responsible for any wrongdoing in these cases.