From concussions to coercion: Why Canada’s Olympic sliders say their safety is at risk

Kori Hol still has her bobsleigh helmet. But not because the 29-year-old pilot has any aspirations to return to the sport.

“This is the helmet that ended my bobsleigh career,” Hol said from her home in Port Moody, BC “I keep this one. This one, when I own my own house, will be on display I think because it kind of is a reminder of what I went through in the sport.”

Hol was once one of Canada’s most promising bobsleigh athletes. Twice she won the North American Cup overall gold, and had her sights on the Beijing Olympics. While trying to keep her spot on Canada’s national team for the 2020-21 season, Hol crashed three times in a four-day span during the team selection races, hitting her head each time.

Hol alleges the national sport organization, Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS), did not follow concussion protocols when she crashed. Namely, she said it wasn’t until the third crash when a team therapist approached her to get evaluated.

Her allegations echo concerns over whether BCS puts a enough emphasis on athletes’ safety. Such concerns were raised by more than a dozen current and former bobsleigh and skeleton competitors in interviews with CBC News since the Beijing Games.

“When it was time to get [tested]I was not escorted by team members, therapist, coach or any staff for that matter,” Hol said, which is contrary to the concussion management protocol on the organization’s website. “I was told to drive to the clinic myself and go get the baseline where I then was diagnosed with a concussion.”

WATCH | Kori Hol was profiled as a Petro Canada FACE athlete in 2019:

The Bond: Kori Hol defining success in Canadian bobsleigh

Canadian bobsleigh athlete Kori Hol shares how her coach Yannik Morin continues to push her forward. 2:39

While the protocol also says athletes need to report to the medical team following a blow to the head, Hol said that’s not what’s expected within the culture of the organization.

“Most of us compete with concussions because we’ll lose a spot if we don’t go back. It’s kind of ingrained into us, you get back up, you go again. That’s the culture we’ve been raised with,” said Hol, who was cut from the team after getting hurt.

BCS has said it was a combination of Hol’s on- and off-ice testing that resulted in her being left off the national team last season.

“I’ve faked my way through the concussion protocol,” Hol said. “I would say I was fine, I would be eager to get back into exercise, only because if you don’t go and compete, you’re going to lose your spot. Which is obviously really dangerous.”

BCS president Sarah Storey faced calls to resign last week in an open letter penned by more than 60 current and former athletes. The number of signatures has since grown to 82 as of Monday.

In response, the organization has called in a mediator to help address the athletes’ concerns.

“It’s really, really frightening the prospect that someone would try to outsmart, so to speak, those protocols,” Storey said on the notion that athletes were circumventing concussion protocols in order to remain eligible to compete.

“The last thing that we want is anyone to feel any pressure to do any testing or any competition when they are injured.”

Hol said after she was left off the team, nobody from BCS contacted her to see how she was doing. She said it was a three-month recovery process, during which she retired from bobsleigh.

“I was in my deepest, lowest point in my life after my concussion, and I obviously had given so much to the sport,” Hol said.

“To just see it ripped away and have a concussion, and then be kicked off the team, and then not hear from a single person within Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton was really heart-wrenching for me.”

WATCH | Olympic bobsleigh medalist Helen Upperton discusses discontent at Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton:

Helen Upperton discusses discontent at Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton

The Canadian Olympic silver medallist joins Andi Petrillo to talk about the issues bobsleigh and skeleton athletes have with their national organization. 6:51

Even when athletes disclose their injuries, they say they’re still forced to fight for their spot on the team through various testing standards.

Olympian Alex Kopacz of London, Ont., won a gold medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games as a brakeman with Justin Kripps in the two-man bobsleigh.

Kopacz told CBC News he had a torn abductor muscle in the 2016-17 season. But when a high-profile athlete tried to make a return, Kopacz said he faced a choice: undergo testing injured to land his spot on the team or risk losing it.

“I remember talking to the high performance director [Chris Le Bihan] and I expressed my concern like ‘I don’t know what’s wrong. It hurts really badly.’ And basically I was given a scenario that if I don’t test, then they have no previous to give me a spot on the team,” Kopacz said.

Alex Kopacz, right, and Justin Kripps won the gold medal in the two-man bobsleigh at the 2018 PyeongChang Games. Kopacz says to keep his spot on the team in the years leading up to the Olympics, he had to undergo team testing while injured. Kripps was not contacted for this story. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

He said he went through with the testing, beat the other athlete for the spot, but aggravated his injury.

“The part that was ridiculous was I had already demonstrated I was their best brakeman prior to [the athlete] coming back. I ended up being the top brakeman in that testing season. And it made [the abductor] worse, and it took me out for six months.”

He said the following season, he was at risk of rupturing his quadricep tendon, but alleges Le Bihan told him if Kopacz was given a pass, other athletes would have to be given a pass as well.

When asked about Kopacz’s allegation, Storey said she couldn’t speak to conversations that may have occurred between an athlete and Le Bihan — who has also faced calls to resign.

CBC News requested an interview with Le Bihan, but he was not made available.

Regarding athletes who are injured, Storey said there are provisions whereby athletes can receive medical exemptions from testing.

But Kopacz said in his case, he understood it as having an exemption would not have secured his spot.

Indigenous athlete complains of racial abuse

The 82 athletes who penned the open letter accused BCS of not prioritizing their safety, although it’s not just physical safety at issue.

Kevin Boyer, a Métis skeleton athlete from Sherwood Park, Alta., who competed at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, complained to BCS of racial abuse in 2019 after his coach Charles Wlodarczak repeatedly referred to him as “chief.”

“Numerous times I would tell him to stop, but he would think it was like a big funny joke kind of thing,” Boyer told CBC News, which corroborated the account with one of Boyer’s former teammates, who said they stuck up for Boyer to the coach.

Kevin Boyer represented Canada at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games in skeleton. Boyer, a Métis athlete, was repeatedly called ‘chief’ by his coach in 2019. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)

At an end-of-season debriefing with Wlodarczak and a BCS employee, the employee noticed Boyer’s body language was visibly uncomfortable. The employee later reached out to him, and they went for coffee a few days later where he disclosed the abuse.

The complaint reached Storey, who sent an email to Boyer asking if he would be comfortable having a meeting with Wlodarczak to address his concerns. Boyer replied, saying he was not comfortable being around Wlodarczak and alleges BCS did not act on his complaint.

“They just told me that I needed to basically work better with Charles and that he didn’t really mean it like that, and we just had to find a way to work it out. No investigation was done or any followup to that or anything ,” Boyer said.

In her interview with CBC News, Storey denied that Boyer was told that he would have to learn to work better with Wlodarczak or that BCS didn’t act on the complaint. She said the rest of the account was accurate.

She said she offered Boyer the meeting with Wlodarczak so Boyer could have the option of going through a less formal process if he desired.

“When Kevin expressed that he did not feel comfortable with a discussion or a mediation, we informed the [human resources] expert of the issue that was raised and required the coach to work with this HR expert for, let’s say training, to ensure this situation would not happen again,” Storey said.

In an email to CBC News, Woldarczak “unreservedly” apologized for language he has used in the past, which he said was “insensitive and in a manner that was inconsiderate.”

“As coaches it is important that we do our best for athletes and for the team we are leading, and I failed in doing that due to my inappropriate language,” Woldarczak said.

“I failed in my capacity as a leader by using language that caused pain and hurt to individuals under my leadership, and I am truly sorry that my words hurt any athlete that I was there to support.”

Storey said Wlodarczak resigned from BCS several months after the incident, but would not disclose why because it’s a human resources issue.

‘Lost my faith in everything after that’

Boyer said he was never made aware that Wlodarczak was required to work with the HR expert to address his complaint, and didn’t take his complaint further to the BCS board.

“I kind of really lost my faith in everything after that. We’re always told that these are the people you go to if you have an issue. And when they kind of don’t deal with it, I didn’t have any confidence that the board would really care. Especially with how quick that they brushed it off, like it was nothing,” Boyer said.

“I know from that experience, my personal relationship with Charles really, really went down the tubes and it was really tough to be a member of the team with such an awful relationship.”

‘It was the opposite intention’

After hearing Boyer’s quote, Storey said: “It makes me very sad that Kevin felt that way. I’m sorry that he felt that way. It was the opposite intention.”

“We didn’t blow it off as saying, ‘Oh he’s having a bad day.’ We sought [him out] to make sure he was OK, and to say, ‘What’s going on and how do we address this?'” Storey said, adding the actions they took were intended to respect Boyer’s wishes.

“And we pursued it beyond that. It was reported by the staff, and I reached out to him. I’m sorry if he had the impression or that I misspoke, but I certainly did not say ‘[You have to work better with Charles].’ That’s not how I operate. That’s not what I believe.”

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