Gymnastics Canada and six provincial member organizations face class action lawsuit alleging years of abuse

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Former gymnast Amelia Cline, who alleges she suffered physical and psychological abuse for three years at a B.C. gymnastics club, is seeking to be the representative plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday in the Supreme Court of B.C.

The named defendants are Gymnastics Canada and six provincial member organizations: Gymnastics BC, Alberta Gymnastics Federation, Gymnastics Saskatchewan, Manitoba Gymnastics Association, The Ontario Gymnastic Federation and Fédération de Gymnastique du Québec.

The proposed class of plaintiffs consists of all gymnasts who claim they were physically, sexually, and/or psychologically abused while participating in programs, activities and events delivered by Gymnastics Canada and the six-member organizations between 1978 and the present.

“The defendants caused or contributed to the abuse of gymnasts by creating a culture and an environment where the abuse could occur, and failing to take appropriate steps to protect the athletes in their care and control, many of whom were children when the abuse took place,” said the statement of claim.

Defendants have 21 days to respond.

The action seeks unspecified punitive and aggravated damages, past and future costs of health care services, and an order directing Gymnastics Canada and the provincial bodies to implement, apply and follow appropriate governance procedures to prioritize the physical and psychological health of gymnasts.

Cline alleges in the suit that as a result of the abuse she experienced a training-induced seizure, back and neck injuries and chronic pain, fractures of the wrist, right hand, fingers and toes, chronic knee pain and permanently hyper-extended knees, disordered eating, stunted growth, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and involuntarily pulling out of her hair and other harmful coping mechanisms.

The suit also states the abuse and injuries forced Cline to incur the cost of treatment and therapies, suffer a loss of wages, a loss of competitive advantage and loss of earning potential.

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Amelia’s experience of abuse is representative of what many gymnasts in Canada endure,” the claim states. “Numerous gymnasts across Canada have brought forward complaints spanning decades that detail their experiences of sexual, physical and psychological abuse and institutional complicity that has enabled the culture of mistreatment of gymnastics athletes to persist.” 

Cline participated in gymnastics from a young age and quit in March 2003 after an incident at the Omega Gymnastics Sports Centre in Coquitlam, B.C. The suit states she was rehabbing from a torn hamstring and alleges that coach Vladimir Lashin forced her to repeat several vault attempts, despite her protestations that she was not physically able. She twice fell on her neck and thought she had broken it. She alleges Lashin said the reason she kept being injured was related to her being overweight. According to the lawsuit, she was 14 years old and weighed about 80 pounds.

Cline quit the sport that day, and she and her parents filed a complaint with Gymnastics BC. According to the claim, a harassment officer from Sport B.C. was appointed to investigate, but the Clines were never allowed to see the report.

The suit alleges that instead of receiving punishment, Vladimir and his wife and fellow coach Svetlana were rewarded with high-profile coaching assignments by Gymnastics BC and Gymnastics Canada. The suit states that in 2009, Gymnastics Canada made Vladimir its national coach/high-performance director in women’s artistic gymnastics, a position he held until June 2010. 

“Gymnastics athletes have been speaking up for years and nothing has been done,” said Rob Koehler, director general of the advocacy organization Global Athlete. “Over 450 gymnasts came forward over the last month, nothing has been done. All they see from Canadian sport leaders is meetings and more meetings. This does not bring closure to these victims, nor does it make those responsible for the abuse accountable. These athletes are brave. Coming forward, speaking up and reliving the trauma is extremely difficult. Canadian sport has failed to act, as a result athletes are required to take action on their own. This reinforces why athletes need collective representation and collective bargaining power to negate the power imbalance.” 

Cline documented the alleged abuse in a post published on the Gymnasts for Change website in late April.

“If these behaviours were being inflicted by a parent on a child at home, we would call this what it is: child abuse,” she wrote. “Emotional and psychological torture. And that parent would likely lose custody of that child. But when it happens in a gym or in a hockey rink or in a ballet studio, we call it coaching. We say it’s tough love. We deem it to be harsh but necessary to produce winners.

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“Why is it so hard for us to say things as they really are when it comes to child athletes and abuse? We continue to allow behaviour from adult coaches that would never be tolerated of parents towards their children at home. It is behaviour that in any other context would be easily recognized as illegal and immoral and all around monstrous. And yet it’s all allowed in the name of winning medals. But the long-term consequences can be devastating. Is a gold medal really worth that child suffering a lifetime of eating disorders, chronic pain, anxiety, and PTSD? Those are the results we should be worried about.”

The suit alleges some members of the proposed class suffered sexual abuse, including inappropriate sexual contact such as sexual grabbing, kissing and fondling; physical abuse including slapping or pinching, over-stretching, over conditioning, and hyperextending of joints; directing and requiring athletes to maintain an unhealthy weight; forcing athletes to perform gymnastics skills without any or adequate training and/or safety equipment; and forcing athletes to continue training when they were physically injured; and psychological abuse including public humiliation in the form of body-shaming regarding athletes’ weight or physical appearance; encouraging or forcing athletes to adhere to unhealthy and abusive weight monitoring and weight management tactics; controlling and manipulative behaviour which included ignoring athletes during training and competitions; depriving athletes of necessary instruction, spotting, assistance and coaching; retaliatory punishments, including kicking athletes out of training for perceived poor performance during training or failure to follow instructions; yelling, belittling and name-calling of athletes; and implicit and explicit threats to athletes’ careers if athletes did not comply with instructions.

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