A rape scandal is rocking French figure skating. Former world-class pairs skater Sarah Abitbol makes serious accusations.
Sarah Abitbol in Paris at the end of January Photo: Celine Villegas/imago
With her book "Un si long silence" ("A silence so long"), former French figure skater Sarah Abitbol has caused a scandal that is not only shaking the sports world. Only the worldwide #MeToo campaign has allowed the ex-pair skater, who now lives in the U.S., to go public. In her book, published at the end of January, the now 54-year-old accuses her former coach Gilles Beyer of raping her when she was 15 years old.
He was 35 at the time, and she was one of the very great talents of French figure skating. Under Beyer’s guidance, she was in a training camp in Roche-sur-Yon that lasted several weeks. "He had a habit of coming with a flashlight to see if the girls were on their floor and the boys were on theirs," she recounts. "One day, the coach woke me up with his flashlight and sat on my bed. He approached slowly and started kissing me." She felt unable to fight back; they were "horrible things."
They were just the beginning. In a secret diary she retrieved 30 years later, she had noted with abbreviations what Beyer had done to her between 19: P for "pelotee" (groped), C for "coucher" (coitus). Beyer, who had the trust of Abitbol’s parents, the club, and the federation, told her, "This is our secret." Suffering from her anxiety, her athletic career came to a premature end. "I still weighed 42 kilos, I was swaying on the ice." She had to cancel a tour on "Holiyday on Ice."
It was not until 2004 that she was able to confess to her parents, who had made great sacrifices for her career, what Beyer had done to her. Even then, she did not dare to report him. When Beyer was confronted with the accusations in the presence of Sarah’s parents, he did not deny them at all. He merely asked for "pardon."
That is his reaction even now, when the book is making headlines: He merely asks for forgiveness for "improper intimate relations. He does not need to fear a conviction; the statute of limitations has expired. And other professional sanctions? On the instructions of the Ministry of Sport, he has not been a coach for years, but, according to information from the magazine Nouvel Obs, was still part of the management of the club Francais Volants, to which Abitbol had belonged, at the beginning of 2020.
"We have a dossier, but we can not do anything".
Former Olympic saber fencing champion Jean-Francois Lamoureux, who was sports minister from 2002 to 2007, laconically told Sarah Abitbol, "Yes, we have a dossier on Beyer, but if you don’t report him, we can’t do anything." To another skater, Laetitia Hubert, who had previously complained to Lamoureux about sexual harassment by Beyer, the minister reportedly said, "It’s normal to fall in love with your coach at that age."
Helène Godard was even only 13 and living in a sports boarding school when Beyer first molested her. She didn’t dare say anything out of shame, but she did change coaches. But the new one, Beyer’s boyfriend Jean-Pierre Racle, raped her several times over two years, she now tells Nouvel Obs. Racle denies having had sex with her before she was 18 and claims she agreed.
Like Sarah Abitbol, Godard describes how not only her athletic career, but her entire existence failed as a result of these violent acts: depression, anorexia, sexual blockage. At 35, she tried to take her own life.
More courageous was Anne-Line Rollande. She was 15 when she filed a criminal complaint for rape against her coach Pascal Delorme in 1995. Six other skaters did the same, and Delorme was sentenced to ten years in prison. But in the French figure skating family, it was swept under the rug, and Rollande was seen as the one who had put a coach in jail. Her brother Vivien Rollande, ex-champion pairs skater, says, "In skating, unhealthy values are passed down from generation to generation; we end up with a whole family tree of broken children."
Because of the furor over Sarah Abitbol’s book, will it now be cleaned up? On Monday, the Minister of Sport, Roxana Maracineanu, summoned the head of the Ice Sports Federation, Didier Gailhaguet, and then demanded his resignation because he had been passively watching. Gailhaguet, however, refuses to draw any consequences.