Athletics Canada has introduced new policies aimed at protecting athletes from inappropriate behaviour and encouraging whistleblowers to come forward.
The new policies come after the sport governing body handed lifetime bans to three prominent Ontario track and field coaches.
Dave Scott-Thomas, formerly of the University of Guelph and the Speed River Track and Field Club, was accused of having inappropriate relationships with athletes and received a lifetime ban in February.
Last May, former Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club coach Andy McInnis and board member Ken Porter received lifetime bans from Athletics Canada for allegations of misconduct. McInnis appealed his ban but it was upheld earlier this spring.
The new whistleblower policy means anyone who witnesses wrongdoing can now report it, according to Athletics Canada CEO Dave Bedford.
Previously, all complaints — whether they involved bullying, mistreatment or sexual harassment — had to come from a victim, he said.
“If someone wants to stand up and be counted and say, ‘I saw this,’ or, ‘I heard this,’ they can be protected in doing that, rather than just a victim having to come forward,” said Bedford.
‘Rule of two’ boosts athlete protection
New athlete protection guidelines emphasize the “rule of two,” meaning that coaches should avoid spending time alone with athletes.
The spirit of the rule should guide all interactions between coaches and athletes, Bedford said.
According to the new guidelines, coaches should avoid sending personal text messages, initiating physical contact and becoming “overly involved” with athletes’ personal lives.
Coaches who don’t follow the guidelines could face penalties up to a lifetime ban, Bedford said.
The new policies are available on the Athletics Canada website.
‘Better late than never’
Audrey Giles, an Ottawa-based former track and field athlete and academic, said the new policies are “better late than never,” but wonders whether they will make a difference in the day-to-day lives of athletes.
“I think they have a lot of good ideas on paper, saying that there shouldn’t be reprisal or retaliation for making complaints [but] I think that’s easier said than done,” said Giles, a professor of human kinetics at the University of Ottawa.
“I think that coaches still hold a tremendous amount of power, and making sure that retaliation doesn’t occur can be really tricky.”
Former track star Chris Dallin, who was among those who came forward with allegations against Porter, agreed.
Dallin said the guidelines are a good start. But he doesn’t think they will necessarily stop coaches from abusing their power, if they’re determined to do so.
“They will use their charisma and charm to distract others from their deeds, and their power over the victims ensures no one says a thing about this kind of behaviour,” Dallin said in an emailed statement.
Dallin and Giles said Athletics Canada also needs to ensure that both coaches and athletes know about the new policies.
Giles said this is especially true for younger athletes. She suggested hosting training sessions to educate athletes about their rights, what they should expect from coaches and how to move forward if something happens to them or a teammate.
The two athletes also agree the track and field community is still dealing with a legacy of abuse and has more work to do going forward.
“Policies are great, but there needs to be a huge culture shift that makes this sort of egregious behaviour impossible to continue,” said Giles.