Twenty years after she says she was told to keep quiet about Bertrand Charest’s alleged abuses to avoid losing sponsorships, Allison Forsyth is speaking out to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.
From Nanaimo, Forsyth began racing World Cup events in 1997 and was an eight-time Canadian national champion for skiing. She had five World Cup podium finishes and placed seventh when she represented Canada at the Winter Olympics in Utah in 2002.
The former Olympian, who alleges she was sexually abused by Charest in 1997 and 1998, says she has struggled with guilt, shame and anxiety as a result.
“I went through years and years of whistleblower guilt, where I felt abandoned and alone and nobody cared that this had happened because everybody tried to cover it up,” she told The Canadian Press in a phone interview Wednesday.
Forsyth, now 39, said she was one of the athletes who came forward in 1998, when Alpine Canada first became aware of Charest’s sexual contact with several of his teenage students.
“I was told, ‘Do not say anything, because we would lose our sponsors’ and it would end my career,” she said.
Charest was found guilty last June of 37 of the 57 sex-related charges he was facing, and was eventually given a 12-year prison term.
The convictions involved nine of the 12 women who’d accused him of crimes that occurred more than 20 years ago, when the victims and alleged victims were aged between 12 and 19.
Forsyth is one of eight victims and alleged victims who have chosen to identify themselves in recent days amid their calls for changes that would better protect athletes from abuse.
The native of Nanaimo, B.C., is struggling with having the word “alleged” attached to her description of events and her status as a victim.
That’s because Charest was not convicted on the charges involving Forsyth due to jurisdictional issues, because the alleged incidents occurred outside of Canada.
“That in general has affected me greatly and has brought back a lot of feelings of shame or guilt, even in just the last 24 hours,” she said.
But despite what she calls the intricacies of the law, she says one thing is clear: ”All of the 12 of us, plus many more, were definitely victims of this horrible man.”
Forsyth went on to have an illustrious skiing career, including five World Cup giant slalom medals and a bronze at the 2003 world alpine championships. She also represented Canada in the Olympics in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
But all that time, she was struggling with what had happened to her.
“I was not the same person after as I was before,” she said. ”I had a very tumultuous career after. I was very depressed, medicated for anxiety. I had anorexia issues.”
Forsyth, now a mother of three, says she’s willing to share her experiences because she believes there are lessons to be learned from what happened to her and the other women.
She says no system was put in place to support athletes when she was skiing and that none of them were given any lessons on what constituted appropriate behaviour from coaches.
Her suggestions, and that of the other women, include more education and training for coaches and athletes and a rule that would not allow coaches and athletes to be alone in a one-on-one situation.
Forsyth is also calling for an independent safety officer who can follow up on complaints and ensure that athletes and coaches are given the support they need.
She says it’s “absolutely critical” to have someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in either party to ensure allegations aren’t swept under the rug as she believes was done in Charest’s case.
She says Charest, for example, was allowed to resign rather than being fired from his position and that his coaching licence was never revoked.
The trial judge in Charest’s case ripped into Alpine Canada in his ruling, saying the organization’s leaders closed their eyes to Charest’s actions and failed miserably in their duty to protect the young athletes.
The chair of the board of Alpine Canada has since acknowledged in a statement that “the organization could have offered more support to the victims in this difficult time.”
The statement added that the organization welcomed any further suggestions on how to improve safety.
Forsyth says the changes she’s calling for go beyond Alpine Canada or any one sport, noting similar abuses have occurred in hockey and gymnastics.
While she doesn’t regret her years as a competitive athlete, she says that, for now, she wouldn’t want her children following in her footsteps.
“I won’t feel complete closure maybe ever, and I won’t feel that we’re there until we have changes in place that we’re happy with,” she said.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press