Amid growing public scrutiny over harassment and abuse in sport, CBC has learned the current CEO of Gymnastics Canada once promoted a coach to one of the highest positions in the organization despite having received complaints alleging inappropriate behaviour.
For decades, Alex Bard was one of Canada’s most respected and well-known gymnastics coaches. But several people say the former national team coach was also known for alleged inappropriate actions that included behaving abusively toward female coaches and kissing, touching and stoking fear in young gymnasts.
Misconduct in sport has become a top priority for federal sport minister Pascale St-Onge, with more than 500 athletes demanding an independent third-party investigation into the “toxic culture” of gymnastics and its prevalence within Gymnastics Canada, according to the agency’s own 2020 annual report.
CBC spoke with four sources, including former athletes and coaches, who allege the Russian-born Bard contributed to that toxicity during four decades of coaching across Canada.
In 2019, Gymnastics Canada said Bard resigned for personal reasons, but media reports soon pointed out he was pushed out — a fact that other staff members have since confirmed. Those include CEO Ian Moss, who said Bard failed to improve on repeated inappropriate behaviour.
Bard has not responded to CBC’s multiple requests for an interview or comment.
None of the allegations have been proven in court as Bard has never been charged with any crime. Peel Regional Police, the force that covers Mississauga — where Bard has lived most of his life — said it does not reveal whether a person was investigated unless charges are laid.
CBC has agreed not to name the sources due to concerns over what speaking out could do to their careers or reputations.
Gymnastics Canada is one of the country’s largest national sport organizations, with more than 310,000 registered athletes. It is the primary pipeline for developing Canadian gymnasts with aspirations to compete on the world stage, including the Olympics.
Allegations date back decades
Bard has been known for decades to kiss young gymnasts on the lips, with one such incident broadcast on television during a sporting event leading up to the 2000 Summer Olympics.
He also allegedly left some gymnasts and fellow coaches “petrified” of him due to his behaviour and his prominent role within Canadian gymnastics, sources said.
“I always tried to stay away out of fear,” a former athlete said.
In 2017, a formal complaint about Bard was taken directly to Moss — who then was the organization’s high performance director — months before Bard was promoted to head coach, two sources say.
One of the sources, a coach at the time, said Moss even spoke to her at length about Bard in December of that year.
“He said, ‘Yeah I know, multiple people have complained about Alex Bard,'” she recalled.
She also said Bard constantly harassed other female coaches.
“He had no filter,” the source said. “You had to be very good politically. Don’t push him away, but also stay away. It was a really weird way to deal with him.”
Three former staff members and coaches with Gymnastics Canada confirmed, beyond the formal complaint, that there were also informal complaints made about Bard over several years, long before his rise to the top of the ranks.
Karl Balisch, the former head of the organization’s artistic gymnastics program, said he heard concerns about Bard in the years leading up to the promotion.
In a statement to CBC, Gymnastics Canada board chair Jeff Thomson said staff would have dealt with all concerns or official complaints with appropriate board oversight.
“None of the current board members were members of the board in 2018,” the statement read.
Promotion just months after direct complaint
Moss announced to Gymnastics Canada staff in early 2018 that Bard would become the new head coach of the national women’s artistic gymnastics team, replacing disgraced coach Dave Brubaker, who had been charged with several counts of sexual assault.
Brubaker was later acquitted of the charges, but he is currently banned from coaching under Gymnastics Canada, which is also the country’s certifying body.
Coaches and staff members told CBC they were shocked Bard was promoted.
“I spoke up about how wrong that promotion was and, in my opinion, I don’t think that my speaking up was appreciated,” one source said, referring to how Moss reacted.
“All athletes are furious given the lack of due diligence conducted by Gymnastics Canada in hiring coaches. It shows how little they care about athlete safety and concerns. They keep a tight internal network close to avoid being exposed,” said a former gymnast.
When Bard left the job in 2019, one year after his promotion, coaches and staff members said they were irritated with the organization’s language around his departure.
The statement was only three sentences long and did not explain why he “resigned.” It mentioned Bard was “instrumental” in helping the national team achieve “its best ever performance” in 2018.
This past summer, Bard told TSN he was aware of a formal complaint against him. He also acknowledged he touched a young female gymnast on the buttocks in Calgary when he served as national team coach, which sources said “upset Gymnastics Canada coaches.”
“The way I was coached by top Russian coaches is that the safety of the gymnast is first,” Bard told TSN. “A coach did mention to me that one of the gymnasts did not feel comfortable. I said if that was the case, I really do apologize. And he came over and said to me it was no problem and not to worry about it.”
Moss told CBC he stands by the letter he sent to the Gymnastics Canada board of directors when he intended to fire Bard in 2019, which indicated Bard had not changed his behaviour despite repeated attempts to “educate him.”
The letter from Moss also referred to complaints made “in respect to Alex’s behaviour in his official capacity with Gymnastics Canada” in the two weeks before Bard’s departure.
“There were a number of informal concerns that were put forward that we dealt with in terms of behaviour, and then there was one formal complaint that came around inappropriate behaviour in one incident that [had] nothing to do with abuse or maltreatment,” Moss told CBC.
“I dealt with it accordingly, and I stand by that.”
In a subsequent statement to CBC, Moss further clarified that “any and all verbal concerns were managed and dealt with to the best of our ability.”
Bard did tell TSN that Moss gave him a choice in May 2019 to either resign or face a formal investigation into the misconduct allegations.
“I have nothing to prove to anybody,” Bard told TSN at the time. “I am not prepared to go and prove my appropriate behaviour.”
Gymnastics Canada’s original announcement about Bard’s resignation “for personal reasons” remains the official statement on the organization’s website.
Oversight, accountability need to improve, sources say
Since his fallout with Gymnastics Canada, Bard has been helping to coach in various gyms in Canada as recently as this past summer, according to sources.
The sources who spoke with CBC want better oversight of Gymnastics Canada practices and stronger background checks.
“One of the many problems with Gymnastics Canada is they have no oversight or accountability. As a result they keep repeating the past by recycling coaches who have had complaints against them,” said one former athlete.
Amid calls for an independent third-party investigation, Gymnastics Canada hired McLaren Global Sport Solutions this summer to help design a culture review for the organization and analyze its national safe sport policies and procedures.
The organization also recently signed on to access the services of the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which was created to provide a one-stop, fully independent complaint investigator. It will be an official member no later than Dec. 2.
St-Onge’s office has suspended funding to Gymnastics Canada, pending confirmation the organization has joined OSIC.
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