Bruce Arthur: Bobsled champion Kaillie Humphries has almost nowhere to turn after courtroom power play hits the wall
|Toronto Star 17 Sep 2019 at 21:03|
True to her nature, Kaillie Humphries tried. She made it clear at the 2018 Olympics that she was not happy with Canada’s bobsled program. Later that year, she filed a harassment claim against her coach. This year, she filed a lawsuit in the hopes of forcing an exit from Canada to compete for the United States. The lawsuit wasn’t even the equivalent of a bobsled crashing; it was like trying to drive a bobsled on a highway. Still, the three-time Olympic medallist gave it a go. As someone who knows her well once said, she sees almost everyone as competition.
And today Kaillie Humphries should be looking around at piles of ash and wondering, at age 34, if she has run out of bridges to burn.
“She doesn’t even have any bridges,” said one current member of the bobsled program who was granted anonymity due to worries over Humphries’s willingness to retaliate. “She’s on an island.”
The two-time Canadian women’s bobsled gold medallist failed to secure an immediate release from the Canadian program in a Calgary courtroom on Tuesday, one day after it was revealed that her harassment case against Canadian bobsleigh head coach Todd Hays was found to be without merit. She must be released by Bobsleigh Canada before Sept. 30 if she wants to compete for the Americans this year. She is running out of options.
Forget for a moment that Bobsleigh Canada would set a troubling precedent by releasing an elite athlete to a richer nation and program based on unsupported claims. Perhaps the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation would intervene; the existing architecture of sports resolution in Canada is the only other way for Humphries to force a release from Canada. Her lawyer, Jeff Rath, said they would pursue an appeal.
But why would anybody grant it? On what basis? Rath threw a lot of dirt into the air Tuesday, loudly protesting that this was a “pretty dark day, and certainly not keeping in where I thought we were in the context of women’s rights, and taking complaints of this nature seriously.”
He also made several claims that seemed to be wrong, or at least misleading. Team Canada pilot Alysia Rissling specifically responded on Twitter to Rath’s allegations that she was in tears due to Hays at an event last year: she rejected the characterization completely, saying it was because she had crashed twice in two days and felt she had let the team down.
Rath also claimed Humphries’s carding and funding was being withheld, but Humphries relinquished a right to that funding when she announced last year she was taking a year off. He claimed team members had been threatened with blackballing if they decided to pair with Humphries; two team sources pointed out that Olympic qualification is determined by a series of fairly well established standards, and denied it had happened anyway.
Kaillie Humphries’ bid to be released by Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton denied
Rath claimed Bobsleigh Canada had promised to release Humphries following the conclusion of the harassment suit; no such promise appears to have been made in the evidence presented, and Humphries’s lengthy list of demands — her own coaches, her own sled, back pay for the year she took off and much more — was rejected by the federation. It was a microcosm of the demands she has made within what was otherwise an equitable program under Hays, according to current team members.
That’s also a big reason why the athletes on the current team are united in their contention that the major culture problems within the program came from Humphries herself. A statement from 2018 gold medallist Justin Kripps and endorsed by the men’s and women’s World Cup teams read, “She has a right to compete like anyone else, but she has a lot of relationships to mend within the program, so I think it’s up to her to decide if she wants to be a part of our team culture or not.”
There has been so much damage done. The harassment suit Humphries filed was examined allegation by allegation, and was found to be almost entirely meritless by an independent investigator. Humphries’s lawsuit was similarly specious — most of its allegations to be questionable at best.
What is left is the broad outlines of what appears to be a war against a coach and a program using the mechanisms of safe sport. False allegations of harassment are extremely rare. Safe sport is a laudable priority of this federal government.
But Humphries also allowed her claim to be conflated with something more serious. At one point Humphries’s lawyer sent an email to all parties commending her courage in speaking up, “especially in light of all the U.S. athletes coming out speaking their truth about the extreme and vile abuse athletes suffer at the hands of their coaches.” The comment was retracted and an apology given when it was pointed out that it was potentially defamatory.
But Humphries simply presented no credible evidence of harassment. Sources indicate she called several people throughout the bobsled world to see if they would support her against Hays; almost nobody did. The veracity of the two pending harassment cases filed against Hays by American athletes with USA SafeSport is one thing. In Canada, Humphries didn’t present anything that stuck.
So what now? Bobsleigh Canada says they would take her back, as long as she follows the same rules as everyone else. In Calgary, Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton high performance director Chris Le Bihan said, “Our mandate is to develop world and Olympic champions. We want Kaillie in our program. Kaillie is obviously going to be a threat in the next Olympics.” The underlying message — and the most obvious question to the idea that Bobsleigh Canada is deliberately trying to keep Humphries from competing for Canada — is that she wins medals, and medals produce much-needed revenue for the program.
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So maybe Humphries finds an escape hatch from Canada and leaves the program with a legacy of winning, and in some disgrace. Maybe she can’t, and has to decide between climbing down and repairing the damage — almost unthinkable, according to those who know her — or effectively retiring.