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Skating rape accusations only the tip of the iceberg for French sport

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French sport officials used to claim they had fewer sex abuse scandals than others because their flagging system worked better. With that belief now shattered, the government is promising forceful action to tackle a crisis roiling Frances ice skating federation.

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When former sports minister Laura Flessel stated in late 2017, at the height of the #MeToo backlash, that “there is no code of silence in French sport”, her claim prompted dismay among experts in the field, who had long warned that widespread abuse was taking place under a veil of secrecy.

Just over two years later, the #MeToo wave has finally caught up with French sport, threatening to submerge the longtime head of Frances skating federation, nicknamed “the Unsinkable”.

On Monday, Flessels successor Roxana Maracineanu summoned Didier Gailhaguet, the boss of French ice sports for over two decades, over a spate of rape accusations that have rattled the figure skating world, and demanded his resignation.

The move followed days of explosive revelations set in motion by 10-time national skating champion Sarah Abitbol, who accused her former coach – himself a former champion – of raping her in the early 1990s, when she was aged 15 to 17.

On Wednesday, the day Abitbol released a book detailing her ordeal, sports daily LEquipe ran a lengthy report into sexual abuse in skating, swimming and tennis. Under the headline “The End of Omerta (code of silence)”, the newspaper published the accounts of three other skaters who accused the same coach, and two others, of abuse and rape when they were minors.

"The weight of facts and their continuation over time illustrate that a general dysfunction exists within the federation," Maracineanu told reporters after Mondays talks. "Didier Gailhaguet cannot absolve himself of his moral and personal responsibility, so I have asked him to assume all his responsibilities and resign."

Brandishing further threats, the minister said she would refer the matter to the public prosecutor "so that a criminal investigation can be conducted", threatened to withdraw state recognition of the federation, and promised to help in the creation of an "association of victims".

Gailhaguet made only a limited apology as he left the ministry, saying: "I made mistakes, not errors." Asked if he would resign, he added: "We'll think about all that."

The next day, prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation into the allegations made by Abitbol and others. In addition, the probe "will aim to identify all the other victims who may have suffered similar abuse", Paris prosecutor Rémy Heitz said in a statement.

Run like a mafia

Coming just a week after a French court jailed tennis coach Andrew Geddes for 18 years for raping four underage players, the shocking allegations are hardly a surprise, says Philippe Liotard, a sociologist at the University of Lyon, who has written numerous articles on sexual abuse in sport.

“Rumours of what happens in skating have been circulating for some time now,” Liotard told FRANCE 24. “What is interesting is that there are now people willing to listen to these accounts, including in the media.”

According to Professor Greg Décamps, who heads the psychology department at Bordeaux University, experts have been arguing for years “that these things happen in all sports and all federations”, with French skating marking “a particularly sordid case”.

“On one side you have a federation run like a mafia, where managers cover, protect and threaten each other,” he says of the skating federation. “And on the other you have the victims, who were silenced, and the others who knew what was happening but were too scared to speak out.”

In her book and in an interview with French weekly LObs, Abitbol said she had repeatedly tried to flag her coachs behaviour but was “faced with an organised silence”. She added: “Basically, everyone said to me Take your meds and be quiet! I obeyed. I took my meds and I fell silent.”

The former skater, now 44, told LObs that after she retired she mentioned her claims against her coach to the then minister of sport, Jean-Francois Lamour, who allegedly replied: “Yes, we have a file on him, but were going to close our eyes.”

The former minister told the French weekly he did not remember this conversation.

Abitbols coach, Gilles Beyer, continued his career as director of the French team and national coach for several more years. According to LEquipe, he was the subject of two investigations in the early 2000s, following complaints by parents. After the second inquest, the sports ministry terminated his contract as a technical advisor, but he continued coaching in another capacity and remained close to the skating federation, whose president Didier Gailhaguet declined to comment when contacted by the press.

On Friday, Beyer admitted to having had "intimate" and "inappropriate" relations with the former skating champion, telling AFP he was "sincerely sorry". The confession prompted a swift rebuke from Abitbol, who stressed that her coach had not confessed to raping her.

At their coaches mercy

Commentators have described the revelations rocking the skating federation as “just the tip of the iceberg”, noting that other sports also have a dismal record when it comes to cases of sex abuse and acting upon them.

Late last year, the investigative website Disclose published a report documenting 77 cases of “major dysfunctions” across 28 different sports. The cases involved at least 276 victims, most of them children under the age of 15.

Young athletes are particularly vulnerable, says Décamps, noting that youths eager for sporting success can easily end up under the thumb of coaches, many of them former champions idolized by their would-be successors.

“All sportsmen and women fear for their careers,” he explains. “Some even persuade themselves that enduring such abuse is a necessary step on the path to winning gold, because everyone has been through this. They want to be accompanied and coached from A to Z by someone who can turn them into champions, and to attain this objective they are willing to be rough-handled. This creates a context in which a coachs influence can easily morph into something sinister.”

Liotard likens athletes submission to their coaches authority to that of ballet dancers and pupils in the most competitive music schools. The fact that trainers help “shape” and “transform” young athletes bodies can sometimes foster ambiguity.

“Sport can expose youths to intimate relationships with adults: training sessions can stretch late into the evening, coaches often drive the kids home, and then theres the nights spent in hotels for away games,” he adds.

Flagging abuse

Stamping out any possible ambiguity is the aim of a “charter of good conduct” drawn up by the NGO Colosse aux pieds dargile, or "Giant with feet of clay". Distributed to schools and academiRead More – Source