Ex-sport minister says verbal abuse about her weight as a young gymnast led to lifelong struggles

Former federal minister of sport Kirsty Duncan speaks to CBC News. 'I will continue to push [for a national inquiry into abuse in sport] because I will not be complicit.' (Devin Heroux/CBC News - image credit)
Former federal minister of sport Kirsty Duncan speaks to CBC News. 'I will continue to push [for a national inquiry into abuse in sport] because I will not be complicit.' (Devin Heroux/CBC News - image credit)

Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan, the former federal sport minister, says verbal abuse about her weight that she experienced as a young gymnast had consequences that lasted many years.

In an exclusive interview with CBC News, Duncan described the emotional and psychological abuse she said she faced after she began her gymnastics training at age six.

"I have not experienced the horrific abuse that other athletes have suffered," she said. "But I do know what it's like to be weighed and shamed. I do know what it's like to be told to eat laxatives, toilet paper and water pills."

On Thursday, Duncan announced that, on the advice of doctors, she's taking medical leave effective immediately to deal with a health challenge.

She said she's telling her story now because she believes not enough is being done to protect young athletes in Canada. Duncan has made repeated calls for a national public inquiry into what she calls the "dirty secrets" of the sports world to expose the prevalence of abuse and find solutions.

"As someone who grew up in a broken system as an athlete, coach and judge, my first job is the health, safety and well-being of my athletes," she said.

"We need a national public inquiry. I will continue to push for it. I will continue to push because I will not be complicit."

Very early in her athletic career, Duncan said, she was dubbed the "fat gymnast" by coaches, judges and parents, even though she wasn't overweight by any standard. Those comments left scars that still hurt today, she added.

Duncan said the incessant barrage of comments about her "ugly weight" made her feel she was engaged in an impossible effort to stay as small as she possibly could. At times, she said, coaches would deny her food that some of her gymnastics friends were getting.

"And it wasn't just for the decade I was in sport. That thinking lasted a lifetime. And I know there are kids out there now who are hurting," she said.

Duncan said joining the national gymnastics team was her dream for years. She said she would lie awake at night going over her routines until she fell asleep.

Like a lot of kids at the time, she was captivated by Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who made worldwide headlines with seven perfect tens at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

"Gymnastics was my life. I trained six nights a week, four or five hours a night. Dance was on top of that. But my first love is gymnastics. I love to fly, I love to soar, and gymnastics allows you to do that," she said.

WATCH | 'I will not be complicit':

But there was a ugly undercurrent waiting to engulf her, she added.

Duncan said she adopted various tricks and dodges as a child to keep the weight off. She said she'd wake up before her family and make it look as if she'd eaten breakfast; at nine years old, she would put a cereal box on the table and a few Cheerios in a bowl, add some milk and even lick the spoon to make it look like she had eaten.

Duncan described a time early in her gymnastics career when she felt she was on the verge of being named to train with the national team. It never happened.

"I waited alone while everyone else left the gym, and for my coach and mom to finish their conversation. While they did their best to gently break the news to me, I hadn't been picked because I was 'too fat,'" Duncan said.

Starvation training

At 14 years old, she said, she was throwing out the lunches her mom would make her, eating only dinner and taking on an extra four hours of training daily. In her second year of university, she said, she ate nothing but oranges for weeks at a time, damaging the lining of her stomach.

After experiencing abdominal pains, she sought medical attention. Her doctor urged her to eat.

"The doctor was re-introducing food just like a mother would introduce solids to a baby," Duncan said.

Allison Forsyth is the co-founder of ITP Sport and Recreation, which offers programming and training to eliminate abuse from sports programs. A former Olympic skier who competed in Salt Lake City in 2002, she's also a survivor of sexual abuse in sports.

Devin Heroux/CBC News
Devin Heroux/CBC News

Her abuser, former Alpine Canada coach Bertrand Charest, was found guilty in 2017 of 37 sex-related charges stemming from the complaints of nine women who were between the ages of 12 and 18 at the time of the crimes. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and was released on parole in 2019.

Forsyth said verbal, emotional, sexual and psychological abuse is widespread throughout the sports world in Canada.

"What Duncan's account highlights is that abuse in sport comes in many forms. Trauma experiences are also unique to each individual and can last years," she said.

"Often through media attention, the focus is put on sexual abuse — a disastrous form of abuse, to be sure. But we must have the recognition and repercussions for perpetrators of all forms of abuse in sport."

WATCH | 'Weighed and shamed':

Duncan said injury ended her gymnastics career — shin fractures stopped her from training and competing.

As an adult, she said, she took up new high-performance sports like marathons and triathlons. Every day, she said, she would run for 90 minutes, cycle for 60 minutes and swim for an hour before lifting weights — all on a diet of roughly 1,000 calories per day.

It had taken hold of her entire life, Duncan said, and it wasn't until she was in her 40s that she finally told her family about her experiences as a young gymnast. Now 56, she only recently took the weight scale out of her bathroom.

"I finally started to tell my family what had happened in gymnastics," she said. "My parents were so angry. Why had other parents denigrated their daughter, and why hadn't I told them? I couldn't. I was so ashamed."

Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press
Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press

Duncan said news reports about athlete abuse reminded her that her story was far from uncommon.

"I saw the stories in the newspapers. The stories didn't change. Athletes would come forward. That has happened for decades. The court cases have come forward for decades," she said.

"So when I was asked to be minister, there was only one thing I was going to tackle and that was safe sport."

Duncan said it took her a long time to make up her mind to tell her story. She added she hopes her experiences contribute to purging sports of cruelty and abuse.

"I should never have had to say sexual abuse, emotional, physical, psychological, verbal abuse should not happen in sport. That should be understood," she said. "The days of 'hear no evil, see no evil' have to end and my priority is going to be the health, safety and well-being of athletes.

"And if we don't have this inquiry, it means we accept the status quo. And I will not accept the status quo."