The death of the two-time US pairs champion brought up uncomfortable questions about power dynamics in ice skating – and sexual abuse in sports
“With coaches, you can put barriers in every stage, so concepts of recruitment, of background checks, and making education. All those, in theory, could apply to athletes but they don’t really apply to athletes,” says Daniel Rhind, a professor at Loughborough University whose research is primarily focused on safeguarding children in sport. “You can’t say, ‘Don’t socialize together, don’t be alone together’... In reality, athletes are in training camps in hotels, what have you. It’s going to be very hard for them to implement such policies.”
Pairs skating isn’t especially popular in the United States – the US hasn’t experienced the success in the discipline as it has in singles skating and ice dance – so you’d be forgiven for not having heard of Coughlin until his death made headlines. But Coughlin was a big deal in the world of American pairs skating. He was skilled, tall and charismatic. More importantly Coughlin was, as a man, a rare commodity in a discipline where female skaters struggle to find partners, a state of affairs due, in part, to both external and internalized homophobia. “For pairs girls, there are 100 girls for every one guy who wants a partner,” Jessica Crenshaw, a pairs skater who competed for Greece, told the New York Times in 2010. “To be able to find a partner and to be able to compete in Europeans and go to worlds, it’s actually almost a miracle.”
She adds: “I definitely didn’t know what to do.” And it’s unlikely that anyone in Kai’s social circle would have been able to help. Her friends were mostly other skaters who might be too afraid to say or do anything that could jeopardize their careers. “Everything is kind of in play for you to not say anything,” Rhind says. “It’s a negative sweet spot.”
Then again, some of Kai’s teammates may not have necessarily understood how problematic Coughlin’s behavior was. “A lot of athletes are homeschooled or don’t have traditional educational experiences. So your social pool is limited to the kids at your rink, which makes it a very small social pool,” Wagner says. “You go to skating parties and you are really young and there are guys there a lot older and can even legally drink at the same party. And so it’s just this really odd social environment that these athletes find themselves in, which leads to this crazy power imbalance.”
The solution, if there even is one, is not to ban relationships between partners who are of legal age and can consent. “Some of these topics that are tougher are addressed in some of the training that’s available,” says Dan Hill, a spokesperson for the US Center for SafeSport. “From a policy standpoint, it’s really hard to ... regulate romance. But you can certainly provide guidelines as to what is and isn’t appropriate.” But educating people about those guidelines is expensive. According to Hill, the Department of Justice gave the Center a three-year grant, totaling $2.5m for education and outreach.
The structural realities of the sport aren’t, in and of themselves, evil. For example, that small women are common is certainly an aesthetic preference, to be sure, but it’s also a result of gravity – a lighter skater is easier for her partner to lift. And the scarcity of men in the sport, can’t be helped through policy and enforcement. But it’s important to be aware of these structural problems and the potential they create for abuse.
ETA: This is one of the best articles I've read on the subject. It touches on a lot of the subjects that we've discussed on FSU that have been somewhat overlooked in mainstream articles.