Olympic gold medallist Jean-Luc Brassard reflects on changing sport landscape

Nobody wanted to comment.

When news broke that a number of Canadian female alpine skiers had been sexually abused by their coach Bertrand Charest between 1991 and 1998, leading to a trial and ultimate guilty verdict, initially Jean-Luc Brassard didn’t want to get involved. The celebrated Olympic gold medal-winning skier was shocked by the allegations, but didn’t know what he could contribute to the conversation. Like everyone else, he directed inquiring journalists elsewhere. 

But then he thought twice.

“A journalist told me, he said `we’ve been knocking on every door possible and asking all kinds of people throughout the skiing world but nobody wants to comment on this’. I was so surprised that no organization was willing to speak up in support of these women. At the very least I wanted them to know that somebody believed them,” Brassard told Sport for Life, describing the moment he decided to make his voice heard on the issue.

“So I called the media and I told them `sure, I’ll do the interview. I don’t know what happened, but I don’t want them to have no help or support.’ These women were so brave, but they were doing it on their own.”

As one of the keynotes at the 2020 Sport for Life Canadian Summit, Brassard will be reflecting on these experiences and many others as he champions large-scale culture change. Throughout Charest’s trial, Brassard was dismayed to learn not only about the abuse involved but also the institutional safeguards that seemed to be missing from his beloved sport. A predator had been allowed to abuse multiple women for years before being caught. Brassard was deeply moved by the story and became an outspoken advocate about abuse in the sport world, even though his own childhood and career were free of those experiences. 

It was precisely because he knew the value of a good coach that he wanted to ensure that what happened to those female athletes was not repeated, or tolerated, or covered up, not in his country or his sport. In the years since he’s become a familiar face in the safe sport movement, passionate about creating the sort of quality sport  environments described in Sport for Life’s Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity

“I can’t say I’m passionate about this topic. I’m disappointed as a human being that any athlete would have to be a victim. I didn’t choose to get involved in this. I was just upset that nobody else was doing anything. We’re talking about people, about women, about human beings.” 

 And there’s a whole spectrum of abuse he’d like to address, everything from verbal abuse to intimidation, bullying and physical attacks. He believes this leads to innumerable athletes quitting their sport early, or feeling like they’re not welcome. He believes that the culture of victory-at-all-costs mentality is largely to blame, and that the culprits could be other teammates, coaches, or even parents. By losing sight of the initial purpose of sports — to have fun — he believes the sport system has failed these kids.

“We need to do what Norwegians do, where if you’re under 13 there’s no points or timer. It should be fun, it shouldn’t be an obligation. But it seems like the time we live in right now, the only goals parents have is for their child to become a champion by age 10. We put way too much pressure of them,” he said.

“As a society we need to accept that even if we don’t produce world champions, that doesn’t matter at all. What they’ve been learning while doing sports will stay with them for the rest of their lives. The true spirit of sports is doing the best you can during an activity, and trying to reach a new level. And when you start thinking that way, everyone is a winner because you’ve increased your ability beyond what you could do before.”

Though Brassard’s claim to fame is his gold medal at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games, he thinks the competition looms too large in the minds of most sport organizations. Really, he thinks there’s often too much emphasis on competition throughout the typical athlete’s long-term development, and he believes these organizations could broaden their mandates to include pathways with other aims in mind. For him, even when he was at the height of his training, skiing was fun. And he believes that’s a foundational element of any positive long-term engagement with sport and physical activity.

“For every single Olympic champion on TV, you also have 200 or 300 other athletes at the same level who just didn’t make the cut, and end up cast aside. They’re at the same level but nothing will happen to them. This is the down side of producing champions,” he said.

“We need to give up on the concept of getting medals at any price.”

This is particularly true because other countries are cheating. As Russian and Chinese athletes are repeatedly caught for doping or pursuing success at the cost of their athletes’ health, he’d like to see Canadians take a more holistic approach to embracing and encouraging budding talent. He champions Sport for Life’s Long-Term Development approach, in which every athlete is considered valued and important. And when he looks back at his career it’s not the Olympic achievement he values most, it’s the relationships he created. 

“I still have friends and competitors who will call me up to let me know they’re going to be in the area, say ‘I want my kids to know you’ and we go skiing for fun. These guys are my friends for life, and that beats any trophy. That’s what I hope for my kids.”

That being said, some people in the sport world are resistant to this sort of attitude change. He often meets parents who are moved by his message, and say they support his goals, but remain intent on ensuring their child becomes a world champion at all costs. In some alarming cases parents are using their children for selfish ends.

“If you got your kids into sport to become famous and to get sponsors, I don’t think that’s the right reason. It’s a process, but I think we’re long overdue for a change in the mentality.” 

  During the Sport for Life Canadian Summit in January, Brassard will be sharing his insights and encouraging delegates to update their thinking. He will be celebrating the successes he’s seen over the past two decades, as well as highlighting places where he believes we can improve. His keynote address will speak to his time presenting to schools under the Ambassadors of Fair Play program, which focuses on inclusion and enjoyment of sport free from intimidation. Delegates will learn about what happens when you celebrate participation rather than results.

“What I really encourage kids to do is find their passion in life, and I’m not necessarily talking about sports. It could be theatre or art or math, it doesn’t matter. Very often when I’m asked how many hours did I train in my life I say ‘no idea, because it was my passion. It was not my job, it was something I wanted to do’.

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