Swimming Canada’s Leadership Change Raising Government Questions

Photo Courtesy: Michael P. Hall/Swimming Canada

Swimming Canada’s Leadership Change Raising Government Questions

The leave of absence taken by Swimming Canada CEO Ahmed El-Awadi has garnered scrutiny by legislators little more than a year out from the Paris Olympics.

El-Awadi’s decision to take a personal leave came three months after he testified before a standing committee on the status of women in sports, part of a federal inquiry. Kevin Waugh, a Member of Parliament speaking in a Heritage committee hearing on safe sport, called the timing of El-Awadi’s departure, “a red flag.”

El-Awadi was the head of Water Polo Canada from 2005-13, a period in which several athletes have alleged abuse by coaches, lack of oversight by administrators and a general toxic culture. Four former athletes last year filed a $5.5 million lawsuit against Water Polo Canada.

El-Awadi’s replacement, acting CEO Suzanne Paulins, called El-Awadi’s departure, “a personal health leave.” She assured the committed of her ability to provide continuity for an organization that figures to be among the leaders in the pool in Paris and has grown to be one of the world’s foremost programs.

“Being with the organization and on the leadership team over the last several years, that was a conscious decision to protect and ensure that the continuity of the organization was maintained in these last 14, 16 months in preparation for the Olympics and Paralympics,” Paulins said. “All of our decisions are around protecting and engaging our athletes, our coaches, our staff in the next 16 months.”

The water polo lawsuits are not alone in what seems a wider reckoning over gender-based abuse and other improprieties in athletic administration, one that has garnered attention from lawmakers. Canadian organizations overseeing hockey and soccer have faced revolutions from athletes decrying poor treatment. Hockey Canada was criticized for improper handling of sexual assault allegations, while Soccer Canada was embroiled in an equal pay dispute with its female players, the reigning Olympic gold medalists.

More than 500 current and retired gymnasts reported abuse of some kind (physical, psychological or sexual) in the last year, forming an organization called Gymnasts for Change. In what the Canadian Press characterized as a “safe sport crisis,” embattled sports minister Pascale St.-Onge has put forth new measures for accountability for organizations receiving federal funding, including increased sanctions, disclosures and transparency.

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