Exclusive: Fencing-Canadian fencers plead for inquiry into abuse in the sport

March 23 (Reuters) – A group that says it represents more than 50 current and former Canadian fencers has joined a growing call for a Canadian judicial inquiry into abuse in sport, saying fear of retribution has scarred them for almost 20 years of what they have called has been silent about the toxic culture and abusive practices of fencing.

“Unfortunately, we are united by our shared experiences of abuse, neglect and discrimination,” the group, which calls itself Fencing for Change Canada, said in a letter to Canada’s Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge, sent Thursday and posted online.

“Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed various forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse and misconduct,” the letter said.

Many are still feeling the psychological and physical effects, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and attempted suicide, the fencers said in the letter, which did not include names of individual athletes.

The fencers allege that some of the perpetrators were Canadian team coaches, the abused athletes were often minors, and the abuse took place at Canadian Fencing Federation (CFF) sponsored events ranging from provincial to national and international competitions.

The CFF said in a statement in response to the letter that it was committed to addressing any concerns raised “as soon as possible.”

“As fencers ourselves, we are deeply disturbed to hear that other fencers have concerns that they feel have not been properly addressed,” the CFF said.

“Ultimately, we believe the entire sporting system requires a coordinated effort to address systemic issues. We are committed to working with Sport Canada and other sports leaders to bridge these gaps and restore confidence where it has been broken.”

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The CFF said its athlete representative would convene a town hall where athletes can share stories.

A former Canadian team fencer, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters that there was “a wide range of abusive practices and environments” she was exposed to where she trained in Vancouver.

“It’s difficult to encompass everything, but really … from a young age you’re immersed in this culture where your coaches are king and you’re slowly being indoctrinated into this mindset where you feel like you’re nothing when you are.” aren’t everything to her,” she said.

The fencer, who recently retired, said the toxic behavior began with trainers stroking her hair. She said they asked for kisses and urged her to tell them she loved them.

When she was 10, the coaches at her British Columbia club lined up the girls in front of the boys after practice, she said.

“They picked us one by one to help the boys change (out of their fencing whites),” she said. “That leads to comments about your body, and there’s been a lot I’ve witnessed in terms of public humiliation and psychological abuse. I’ve seen my trainer tie someone’s shoelaces and make them run sprints because they thought it was funny.”

She said she was regularly forced to exercise to the point of exhaustion, often passing out or vomiting.

The fencer said she has been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and is working with a psychiatrist.

“When I left (the sport) I felt so worthless without their approval,” she said. “Many days I woke up wanting to kill myself.”

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Canada has been rocked by a spate of sports scandals over the past year, with athletes from gymnastics, bobsleigh and skeleton, boxing, women’s soccer, rowing and others calling on St-Onge to clean up the sport.

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They are calling for a national investigation similar to the 1989 Dubin Inquiry into drug use following the Ben Johnson doping scandal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

“I started fencing as a kid and I really love this sport,” another former athlete, who also requested anonymity, told Reuters. “And I really struggle with seeing what my friends have been through without realizing it until later.

“Our goal is to maintain the positivity that sport can bring…while removing that negative weight that’s constantly in the culture. Our hope is to make sport safer and have safer reporting systems that athletes feel comfortable in telling stories, where they really feel like something is about to change, that they are being listened to and that they have a voice .”

St-Onge did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She has previously opposed an investigation and spearheaded the creation of Canada’s first Office of Sports Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which began hearing complaints in June last year.

The Canadian Heritage Standing Committee recently heard testimony from members of Canada Soccer’s national women’s soccer team and senior management in an ongoing industrial dispute.

Athletes from numerous sports have also testified before the Standing Committee on Women’s Rights on the safety of women and girls in sport since December.

Reporting by Lori Ewing Editing by Toby Davis and Rosalba O’Brien

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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