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Figure skating, John Coughlin and the disturbing reality of athlete-on-athlete abuse

The death of the two-time US pairs champion brought up uncomfortable questions about power dynamics in ice skating – and sexual abuse in sports

Figure skating, John Coughlin and the disturbing reality of athlete-on-athlete abuse
John Coughlin was the subject of allegations from two of his fellow skaters. Illustration: Emily Haasch/The Guardian

We are in the midst of a great reckoning around abuse in sports. Athletes – from Olympic champions to high school students – have come forward to detail harrowing accounts of the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse they have endured at the hands of coaches and how the very institutions set up to protect them have miserably failed to do their jobs. Most of the stories have focused on predatory coaches but less reported, and no less disturbing, are the cases in which athletes have been abused by their own teammates. One recent set of data released by attorney and campaigner Nancy Hogshead-Makar said that 23% of cases of athlete sexual abuse involved athlete-on-athlete abuse.

“With coaches, you can put barriers in every stage, so concepts of recruitment, of background checks, and making education. All those, in theory, could apply to athletes but they don’t really apply to athletes,” says Daniel Rhind, a professor at Loughborough University whose research is primarily focused on safeguarding children in sport. “You can’t say, ‘Don’t socialize together, don’t be alone together’... In reality, athletes are in training camps in hotels, what have you. It’s going to be very hard for them to implement such policies.”

Though different policies and safeguarding measures may need to be enacted in order to guard against athlete-on-athlete abuse, one feature remains consistent through all forms, be it coach-on-athlete, athlete-on-athlete, or administrator-on-athlete: a power imbalance.

“They follow sort of a similar type of setup where there’s some kind of power one athlete has over the other for some reason,” Han Xiao, the chair of the Athlete Advisory Council, says. The imbalance can be the result of many different factors, including the athletic prowess of the abuser, age, or gender. “It may be that, you know, some athlete just has a lot of respect among the athlete community,” says Xiao.

John Coughlin checked almost all of those boxes. He was charismatic, well-respected, and a star in a sport where, at times, significant age differences between men and women are par for the course.

Coughlin, a two-time US pairs champion, killed himself in January at the age of 33, a day after he received a suspension from the US Center for SafeSport and US Figure Skating for unspecified sexual misconduct (he denied the allegations before his death). While there is still much that is unknown about the case, it seems that at least some of the allegations stem from his time as an athlete. In the months following his death, two of his fellow skaters – Bridget Namiotka and Ashley Wagner – said he had sexually assaulted them. Namiotka said Coughlin, one of her former skating partners, had abused her over the course of two years. Wagner, an Olympic bronze medalist, said that Coughlin assaulted her when both were competitive skaters – she was 17 and he was 22 – while she slept after a party in Colorado Springs. SafeSport has refused to complete its investigation, citing the fact that Coughlin is dead and cannot be interviewed. The organization closed the case above the objections of US Figure Skating, which wanted SafeSport to continue with its investigation. But, as we shall see, there are aspects of pairs skating in particular and figure skating in general that make it particularly vulnerable to athlete-on-athlete abuse

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Pairs skating isn’t especially popular in the United States – the US hasn’t experienced the success in the discipline as it has in singles skating and ice dance – so you’d be forgiven for not having heard of Coughlin until his death made headlines. But Coughlin was a big deal in the world of American pairs skating. He was skilled, tall and charismatic. More importantly Coughlin was, as a man, a rare commodity in a discipline where female skaters struggle to find partners, a state of affairs due, in part, to both external and internalized homophobia. “For pairs girls, there are 100 girls for every one guy who wants a partner,” Jessica Crenshaw, a pairs skater who competed for Greece, told the New York Times in 2010. “To be able to find a partner and to be able to compete in Europeans and go to worlds, it’s actually almost a miracle.”

Ashley Wagner: Olympian says she was assaulted by fellow US skater Coughlin

Whatever the reasons, it is undeniable that there are fewer male skaters than female, a fact that becomes even more consequential in partner events like pairs or ice dance. For example, Ice Partner Search, a website where skaters can find partners for pairs or ice dance, has 32 women listed for pairs and 16 for men, a ratio of 2:1. For ice dance, the numbers are even more unbalanced, with 32 men listed to 121 women. The dearth of men has led to some parents taking extreme measures for their daughters. “Boys are so much in demand in skating that a girl who wants to skate pairs will do everything she can to get a partner – which means fronting the cost of everything. I’ve been offered a free ride by girls,” Chad Brennan, a pairs skater, told the Cut in 2014. “They offered to pay for my skating and equipment if I moved to live and skate with her.” Indeed, gifts of cars are not unheard of.

“You do have a scarcity of potentially successful male partners and that does definitely create an automatic power imbalance because there are plenty of pair girls and not enough pair guys to go around” Wagner says. “I can’t speak on what that leads to but there is definitely that potential power play in the sport.”

Ashley Wagner: ‘The thing that I found just unbelievably unacceptable was the reaction towards the victims who were brave enough to come forward’ Photograph: Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

And then there is the age difference between pair partners. The International Skating Union’s rules take that into account. In the singles categories, the cutoff for junior competition is 18. In pairs and dance the cutoff for men is 21, a rule necessitated by the fact that often the male partner is older than his female counterpart.

“You have this situation where in figure skating, the female athletes are typically very young,” Wagner says. “I started competing internationally around age 13. That was the start of my elite experience.”

Like Namiotka, Jada Kai, a singles skater who performed under the name Melissa Bulanhagui and represented both the US and the Philippines, remembers Coughlin grooming young female skaters at the Delaware rink where they both trained, including her. Kai trained at the same Delaware rink as Coughlin and Namiotka, and was between the ages of 14 and 18 during this period; Coughlin was five years her senior and four years older than Namiotka. “John was always, like, really the charismatic type. He was everyone’s friend,” Kai recalls. According to Kai, the grooming started with very small moves, Coughlin would “be inappropriate and like stroke our legs when no one was looking and stroke our arms.” She says that he would also send the younger girls at the rink flirtatious texts. “There were a couple of occasions where he would call me in the middle of the night,” Kai says. “I was like 15 at the time. He would be just like, ‘Oh my god, you wear all black in your tight yoga pants and v-neck shirt.’”

What Kai describes sounds similar to a report in USA Today last week about Morgan Cipres, one half of the 2018 world championship bronze medal winning French pair. The report alleges that Cipres, who trains in Florida, sent a 13-year-old skater at the rink a photo of his penis. Cipres told USA Today that “I have nothing to say about this allegation”.

Once, Coughlin came over to Kai’s home to watch a movie. “For some reason that was OK with my parents,” Kai says. With her mother in the other room, Coughlin started to touch her. “He just put his hand on my leg and then just started like, stroking his hand on my inner thigh. Just like started petting me during this movie.”

She adds: “I definitely didn’t know what to do.” And it’s unlikely that anyone in Kai’s social circle would have been able to help. Her friends were mostly other skaters who might be too afraid to say or do anything that could jeopardize their careers. “Everything is kind of in play for you to not say anything,” Rhind says. “It’s a negative sweet spot.”

Then again, some of Kai’s teammates may not have necessarily understood how problematic Coughlin’s behavior was. “A lot of athletes are homeschooled or don’t have traditional educational experiences. So your social pool is limited to the kids at your rink, which makes it a very small social pool,” Wagner says. “You go to skating parties and you are really young and there are guys there a lot older and can even legally drink at the same party. And so it’s just this really odd social environment that these athletes find themselves in, which leads to this crazy power imbalance.”

Wagner went into great detail about the specifics of skating’s social scene, particularly around age, when she came forward about Coughlin’s assault. She said she was motivated to speak out because of 13-year-old Alysa Liu’s win at the 2019 national championships. Wagner was concerned about someone as young as Liu being in a social environment that she was too young to handle. As Wagner noted, in skating, as in many other elite sports, your skill, not your age, dictate your social circle.

Alysa Liu's remarkable rise: is 13 too young to be an elite athlete?

Romance can also cause problems. It is not uncommon for partners to date and even marry each other. Perhaps the most famous skating couple in history, the double Olympic champions Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, were 11 and 15 respectively when they first started skating together. When the pair returned to Olympic competition in 1994 after their marriage and the birth of their daughter, the media played up their romantic relationship almost as much as their technical skill.

“You’ve seen so many so many beautiful relationships blossom out of this sport,” Wagner says. “But that’s where it can get really confusing for a younger athlete, because you do have all of these romantic success stories to draw inspiration from and it’s taken out of context, it can be really confusing and misleading for a young athlete.”

The solution, if there even is one, is not to ban relationships between partners who are of legal age and can consent. “Some of these topics that are tougher are addressed in some of the training that’s available,” says Dan Hill, a spokesperson for the US Center for SafeSport. “From a policy standpoint, it’s really hard to ... regulate romance. But you can certainly provide guidelines as to what is and isn’t appropriate.” But educating people about those guidelines is expensive. According to Hill, the Department of Justice gave the Center a three-year grant, totaling $2.5m for education and outreach.

The media could also be more careful with how they talk about romantic relationships within pairs skating; in the past, it was certainly overemphasized. “If everyone involved from journalists to parents to coaches, sport officials, read, or look back at some of the historical coverage and see some of the romanticism that was given to the pairs matching process even or the romance between pairs through the lens of what we know today, I think that we would change some of the vocabulary and … maybe see it as less innocent and more, something that we should all be mindful of,” Hill says.

Though our conversation focused on pairs, Wagner stressed to me that these issues could be found across ice skating as a whole. “I don’t think this is a problem that is just specific to pairs skating. This is a cultural issue in which everybody is kind of used to the social scene of skating,” she says.

The structural realities of the sport aren’t, in and of themselves, evil. For example, that small women are common is certainly an aesthetic preference, to be sure, but it’s also a result of gravity – a lighter skater is easier for her partner to lift. And the scarcity of men in the sport, can’t be helped through policy and enforcement. But it’s important to be aware of these structural problems and the potential they create for abuse.

It’s about putting policies in place to make sure that those power imbalances are not allowed to develop

Hill, while not commenting specifically on the Coughlin case, says figuring out risk factors for each sport is an ongoing process. “When you’re looking at an organization or institutional culture, one of the first things you have to do is recognize where the power imbalances are,” he says. “And sometimes they’re learned through the reporting structure when you start seeing a pattern of abuse or a certain type of report, that might alert you to a power imbalance that you didn’t recognize or failed to know.”

Perhaps the scarcity of male pairs skaters in the sport didn’t initially appear to be problematic but surely after the Coughlin allegations, it became – or should become – an area that requires increased scrutiny.

“It’s about training the individuals involved,” Hill says. “It’s about putting policies in place to make sure that those power imbalances are not allowed to develop into something that turns abusive.” Hill doesn’t specify what those exact policies should be, but he does point to SafeSport’s minor participation policy as part of the remedy. One of the provisions stipulates that when athletes turn 18 they must adhere to the same policies as any other adult coach or administrator would when interacting with teammates 17 and below. This means things like no private texting or time spent one-on-one alone. But, the policy states, “with the exception of athletes who are members of the same team” and 15 or older. It’s unclear whether this policy would have been of any use in Coughlin’s case, especially regarding the allegations from Namiotka.

While it’s one thing to create policies that protect athletes, it’s quite another to educate people about those policies – and then implement them. Since opening its doors in 2017, SafeSport has been inundated by complaints about sexual misconduct and assault from athletes. And since there is no statute of limitations, a person can file a complaint about abuse that took place years, even decades ago. As has been frequently reported, the Center does not have the budget to properly do the job that it has been tasked with.

“The Center is on the record saying it needs more resources. The number of reports has grown to a number that is astonishing,” Hill says. At present, according to Hill, the Center receives approximately 230 reports a month, a 600% increase over the monthly average from 2017. This caseload is managed by 24 employees. In an email, Hill said that by the end of 2020, they expect to have more than 40 employees managing the caseload.

“SafeSport is so wrapped up in wrapping up investigations that I don’t think a ton of work has been done on the outreach and education,” Xiao says. While investigating claims and issuing judgements is SafeSport’s primary role, one could imagine that a lack of outreach to the sporting communities which it regulates hampers its ability to do its job well. One can also imagine that the tragic ending of the Coughlin case could have had a chilling effect on reports to the Center about sexual abuse. At the 2019 national figure skating championships, which started right after Coughlin’s death, his friends and supporters were seen wearing red caps in his honor – Coughlin had been a Kansas City Chiefs fan – a move that some criticized as dismissing the allegations against the skater. “Sitting back and watching the reactions to the events that transpired, I understand that it was confusing for a lot of people,” Wagner says. “The thing that I found just unbelievably unacceptable was the reaction towards the victims who were brave enough to come forward.”

For Wagner, it’s vital that skaters develop a life outside of the rink. “I’ve been working really closely with US Figure Skating to develop a curriculum that’s focusing on helping athletes develop a social scene outside of the sport, just to take some of the pressure off of these competitions and parties,” she says.

Wagner’s own skating career is proof of concept. “I saw my most successful years in the sport when I had a balanced lifestyle,” she says. It was during the latter, more balanced half of her career that Wagner won silver at the 2016 world championships, ending a 10-year medal drought for American women.

But even a robust social life outside of skating will not eliminate the fear of retaliation that skaters may have in coming forward, especially when the person you’re supposed to report to is a judge or another official who could impact your career down the line. “If you have something bad happen to you at a competition, you are not going to tell the judge who’s going to be on your panel at nationals that you were drinking and someone inappropriately came onto you,” Wagner says.

This is one of the changes that Wagner says US Figure Skating made in response to her allegations. “They immediately made the move to hire team leaders that are actually qualified to watch out for these athletes instead of just being international officials,” she says.

And what happens if the person you’re accusing is your skating partner? Coming forward could ruin everything you have worked so hard for. “It’s very easy for a female athlete to say, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna put my head down and do the work I have to do because I’m not gonna let this guy derail what I’m doing,” says Katherine Redmond, a victims advocate and founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

A year into the Coughlin case all we know is this: a young man is dead, his alleged victims are still hurting, and figure skating has only just started to examine itself and plan where to go from here.

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