Beyond the Podium


Beyond the Podium

Gold medals, lucrative endorsement deals, and fame are some of the benefits athletes may enjoy. But, beyond the podium, athletes are too often subjected to maltreatment. Richard McLaren, O.C., noted that, “There is a wide reaching consensus that not only is the participation in sport a human right, but so too is participation in safe sport” (the “Independent Report”).

Maltreatment is broadly defined and can be verbal, physical, or sexual. Whatever the form of maltreatment, the psychological impact on an athlete is long-lasting. Recent high-profile cases have brought maltreatment to the attention of the general public. For example, maltreatment has been exposed in hockey, gymnastics, alpine skiing, swimming, and soccer. On May 4, 2021, a CBC article cited an Angus Reid poll indicating rampant bullying, misogyny and racism in amateur hockey. Further, in May 2021, the Australian Human Rights Commission found that Australian gymnastics had a toxic culture with a high risk for bullying, harassment, neglect, sexual abuse, assault, child abuse, and misconduct. There is recognition across Canada, and internationally, that something must be done to protect athletes.

Making change is not simple as there are hurdles to overcome, including:

  • Fear of retribution in reporting maltreatment;
  • The culture of a sport may overlook particular behaviours;
  • The autonomy of individual sporting organizations;
  • The lack of independent and trained investigators and adjudicators;
  • Conflicts of interest;
  • The lack of resources;
  • A misunderstanding of the duty to report maltreatment; and
  • A prevailing belief that even if a complaint is made, nothing will be done.

There are many reports, papers and organizations dedicated to addressing maltreatment in sport. In working for a solution, the first step is identifying that there is a problem. The next step is creating a framework on what to do about it. As part of an ongoing process to establish a code of conduct to address maltreatment in sport, stakeholders in the Canadian sport community produced a draft document entitled the “Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport” (the “Universal Code”). In October 2020, the Independent Report included recommendations to establish a framework that would implement and administer the Universal Code.

viaSport British Columbia is trailblazing a path by developing its provincial safe sport program to handle complaints of maltreatment. The Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (the “SDRCC”) assisting viaSport in this endeavour, established a Safeguarding Tribunal. Uniquely, this tribunal will provide a victim-centred approach for hearing complaints. The specific arbitration rules for the Safeguarding Tribunal are found in the Canadian Sport Dispute Resolution Code (the “Code”).

The Code introduces a new way of thinking about the adjudication of allegations of maltreatment. Significantly, the Code empowers the arbitrator to fashion testimonial accommodations so that the victim is not re-traumatized, such as:

  • Allowing a support person to be present or participate at the hearing;
  • Presence of a specially trained animal for support;
  • Presenting evidence by affidavit, teleconference, use of a screen, recorded statement, or a closed-circuit camera; and
  • Advance approval of questions put to a witness by the arbitrator.

In deciding how best to tailor procedural accommodations, the Code provides that the arbitrator can, among other things, consider the witness’ wishes and feelings along with their particular needs and abilities.

Further to the Independent Report, the Government of Canada designated the SDRCC, in July 2021, to lead the implementation of the Universal Code at the national level.

Athletes sacrifice much to achieve their dreams of standing on the podium. Their sacrifice should not include the nightmare of enduring maltreatment and its damaging effects.