Some of Canada’s top bobsleigh and skeleton athletes are calling for the resignations of the president of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, Sarah Storey, and high performance director Chris Le Bihan.
A group of more than 60 athletes have penned an open letter to the organization, alleging Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS) is still riddled with toxicity — despite the organization touting a culture shift following the departure of Kaillie Humphries in 2019 amid harassment allegations.
The full list of signatories to the letter has not been disclosed by its organizers. However, CBC News has spoken to a dozen current and former athletes, and has verified the letter’s authenticity.
The athletes who spoke with CBC News say while the culture shift was generally successful in repairing relations between athletes and coaches, BCS’ administration didn’t hold up its end to bring about positive change to the organization.
Canada won a bronze medal in the four-man men’s bobsleigh at the Beijing Winter Games last month, as well as a bronze medal in the inaugural women’s monobob event.
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A culture of fear
The athletes who spoke with CBC News all described a grim culture, one where they’re afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation from the organization — namely, losing their spot on the national team and thus their Olympic dreams. Those concerns are also reflected in the letter, signed by athletes who competed for Canada as far back as 2014.
“BCS’s leadership style feels authoritarian, and fear of retaliation silences athletes and prevents them from bringing forward any questions or concerns,” the letter reads.
“The athletes feel they have no voice on matters that directly affect them and face an organization that is unwilling to meaningfully address concerns and make improvements.”
Athletes who spoke with CBC also allege concerns raised have often been met with defensiveness from the organization, and their complaints disregarded. When BCS has taken steps to investigate complaints, the athletes say the process has been inadequate, as also raised in the letter.
Through a spokesperson, Storey and Le Bihan declined CBC’s request for an interview about the letter.
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“In general investigations have been undertaken to resolve these complaints, however athletes are concerned with the timeliness, priority and process by which these issues have been addressed,” the letter reads.
“At this time, athletes do not have confidence in the [BCS] to prioritize their safety, prevent new issues from arising, or ensure they will be handled appropriately.”
Such concerns around BCS’s process for handling complaints are not new.
In a 2021 decision from the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre in Humphries’ case, an arbitrator found that an investigator hired by BCS to look into Humphries’ complaints “started from a position where his inclination was to interview no witnesses,” the arbitrator ruled.
“Then he appears to have reluctantly agreed to interview five of six witnesses, in addition to the principal actors,” the arbitrator added in setting aside the investigation’s findings and ordering a new investigation.
Athlete safety concerns
The athletes also allege their safety isn’t a primary concern for BCS.
In the letter, they point to how skeleton athletes were sent to an Olympic test event in Beijing in October 21, without a coach, where the team was getting accustomed to the new track.
Athletes who spoke with CBC News say while they were still in Beijing for the test event, BCS informed them the national team selection races would be a week later. Several athletes reportedly crashed during the team selection race once back in Canada, they allege, as they were forced to slide jet lagged from the Beijing trip.
Some of the jet-lagged athletes also under-performed during the team selection race, they allege, citing mental fatigue, and say the process to select the national skeleton team was unfair given the tight turnaround time to get back to Canada and slide.
Only three of the six athletes who attended the event attended the Olympics three months later.
Team chosen at BCS’ discretion, athletes say
But the results of the selection races seemed not to have mattered, as spots on the national team were chosen at BCS’s discretion. For example, on the women’s side, the two fastest sliders from the selection races were placed on the lower Intercontinental Cup circuit, while the third and fourth-fastest sliders were named to the top-tier World Cup circuit.
Such apparent discretion in selecting teams is another issue the athletes have taken exception to in their letter.
“BCS employs unilateral decision making, while also disregarding best practices and athlete feedback. The policies and criteria are unnecessarily complicated, rely heavily upon coach or administration discretion,” the letter reads.
“At first glance these policies appear robust. In reality, they serve only to reinforce BCS’s deeply held biases, resulting in an environment that is anti-competition, contrary to the fundamental essence of sport, and ensure in many cases that only the athletes who fit into the ‘BCS-ideal’ will ever have the opportunity to compete.”
BCS plans meeting to address concerns
In a statement, the organization said it appreciated the athletes bringing their concerns forward.
“We take the concerns of our athletes seriously. As we do at the completion of every Olympic quadrennial, we plan to meet with our athlete community directly as soon as possible to review and address their concerns,” the statement read.
“The process of scheduling meetings has already begun with our national skeleton program.”