(Reuters) - More than 50 current and former Canadian fencers have joined a growing call for a Canadian judicial inquiry on maltreatment in sport, saying the fear of retribution has kept them silent for nearly 20 years on fencing's toxic culture and abusive practices.
"Unfortunately, we have been united by our shared experiences of abuse, neglect and discrimination," the group calling themselves Fencing for Change Canada said in a letter to Minister Pascale St-Onge sent on Thursday and published online.
"Over the past 20 years, we have experienced various forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse and misconduct."
Many are still feeling the psychological and physical impact, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide attempts, the fencers said in the letter.
The fencers allege that some of the perpetrators were Canadian team coaches, the athletes abused were often minors, and the maltreatment occurred at Canadian Fencing Federation (CFF) sponsored events at the provincial level up to national and international competitions.
CFF did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"There were a wide range of abusive practices and environments that I was exposed to where I trained in Vancouver," a former Canadian team fencer told Reuters.
The athlete, who requested anonymity, said she has thought about killing herself.
"It's difficult to encompass everything, but really . . . from the time that you're very little, you're engrossed in this culture where your coaches are king, and you slowly get indoctrinated into this mindset of feeling like you're nothing if you're not everything to them."
The fencer, who retired recently, said the toxic behaviour began with coaches caressing her hair. They asked for kisses. They demanded she tell them she loved them.
By the time she was 10, coaches at her club in British Columbia would line the girls up in a row in front of the boys after practice.
"They would choose us one at a time to help the boys get changed (out of their fencing whites)," she said. "That progresses into comments about your body, and there was a lot I witnessed in terms of public humiliation and psychological abuse. I saw my coach tie someone's shoelaces together and made them run sprints because he thought it was funny."
She said she was regularly forced to train to exhaustion, often passing out or vomiting.
The fencer said she has been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and works with a mental health professional.
"By the time I left (the sport), I felt so worthless without their approval," she said. "A lot of days I woke up, I wanted to kill myself."
Canada has been rocked by sport scandals over the past year, with thousands of athletes in gymnastics, bobsleigh and skeleton, boxing, women's soccer, rowing and others calling on St-Onge to clean up sport.
They are asking for a national investigation similar to the 1989 Dubin Inquiry that delved into the use of drugs after the Ben Johnson doping scandal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
"I started fencing when I was a kid, and I really love the sport," another former athlete, also requesting anonymity, told Reuters. "And I really struggle with seeing what my friends, not even realising until later, had gone through.
"Our goal is to keep the positivity the sport can bring... while removing this negative weight that has been perpetually in the culture. We're hoping to make the sport safer, and to have safe reporting systems where athletes feel comfortable telling their stories, where they can really feel like change will happen, that they're being listened to and they have a voice."
St-Onge has argued against an inquiry, citing the creation of Canada's first Office of the Sports Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which began hearing complaints on June 20th.
The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, meanwhile, has recently heard testimony from members of the national women's team and members of Canada Soccer's executive in their ongoing labour dispute.
Athletes from numerous sports have also testified since December before the Standing Committee on the Status of Women on the safety of women and girls in sport.
(Reporting by Lori Ewing; Editing by Toby Davis)