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French chief defiant in figure skating ‘rape and sexual abuse’ scandal

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French Ice Sports Federation (FFSG) President Didier Gailhaguet holds a press conference at the FFSG headquarters in Paris, on February 5, 2020, a day after French prosecutors opened an investigation into claims of rape and sexual abuse of minors in the sport. AFP

AFP – French figure skating chief Didier Gailhaguet cut a defiant figure Wednesday amid claims of rape and sexual abuse of minors in the sport and government demands for his resignation, blasting his critics as “moralising” and “chancers”.

Former world championship bronze medallist Sarah Abitbol, in her autobiography published last week, accused coach Gilles Beyer of raping her several times from 1990 to 1992 when she was between the ages of 15 and 17.

Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu has called for federation head Gailhaguet to resign, saying he “cannot absolve himself of his moral and personal responsibility”.

French prosecutors then opened an investigation into Abitbol’s claims, which were followed by further allegations by three other skaters of underage sexual abuse.

“The minister did not hear me, she is draped in her certainties,” Gailhaguet told a press conference on Wednesday, adding he had been targeted by a “moralising” Maracineanu and “chancers that we have not seen at ice rinks for 10 years”.

“To resign, I must have committed some mistakes, and I haven’t.”

Gailhaguet added: “I have absolutely not protected Gilles Beyer.

“I’ve found out about 90 percent of these incidents in the press and in a book… 10 days ago.”

The federation, Gailhaguet continued, was “not a bunch of sexual perverts”.

“It’s a shockwave that has hit not only skating but all sports.”

After meeting Maracineanu on Tuesday, Gailhaguet said he would not make a decision on whether to step down until the investigation had concluded.

That decision left the sports minister “a little speechless”.

“At no time did he say before me what his vision was with regard to this problem which affects his federation,” she said.

Maracineanu was backed up by French government spokesperson Sibeth N’Diaye, who argued that Gailhaguet had a “moral responsibility”, stressing that the executive board were not in a position to “correctly run the federation”.

N’Diaye’s comments followed news that four of the federation’s 16-strong board had resigned, the 12 others deciding to back Gailhaguet’s decision to await the conclusion of the probe.

Gailhaguet has been the most influential man in French ice skating since he first became president in 1998, some years after the alleged offences.

He has headed the federation ever since apart from a three-year hiatus between 2004 and 2007 which followed a judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics for which he was suspended by the International Skating Union for three years.

Gailhaguet’s accession to the presidency opened the door for Abitbol’s coach Beyer to take over as manager of the French national team.

It has been shown that Gailhaguet was aware of complaints of inappropriate behaviour against Beyer.

A 2000 inquiry led the sports ministry to remove Beyer from his technical role at the federation, but he remained a coach at club level and held an executive position at the federation until 2018.

Later Wednesday, Maracineanu kept up her offensive by claiming that in 2011 Gailhaguet had asked “the executive committee of the federation for the reintegration of Beyer in the supervision of junior teams”.

Eleven years earlier, Beyer had been investigated and it was concluded that he should no longer have “any youth coaching function”.

Gailhaguet had recognised earlier at his press conference an “error” in allowing Beyer to have a supervisory role with the French team at the 2011 World Junior Championships.

In the wake of abuse allegations, leading French sports personalities on Wednesday published an open letter urging an end to the “silence” over the taboo of sexual assault in sports.

“We cannot stay silent any longer,” said a letter in the Le Parisien daily signed by the likes of judo star Teddy Riner, ice dancer Nathalie Pechalat and tennis player Tatiana Golovin.

“It is time to act collectively and understand that breaking the silence is to do service to sport.”

Also Wednesday, Gailhaguet pointed to the case of French skater Morgan Cipres who was investigated in the US last year for allegedly sending lewd photographs to a 13-year-old girl.

“Morgan undoubtedly committed a major mistake, unacceptable. Shameful bullshit,” said the skating chief.

“I forced him to come and speak before the federal council to explain these facts and apologise.

“He is currently undergoing curative treatment with a psychologist. And we are planning preventive time in a specialized police unit for minors so that he can see the consequences.

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