CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy — The message in red capital letters — “STOP VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND GIRLS” — was printed on the bottom of skiers’ bibs for a recent women’s World Cup downhill in Cortina.
It was so small, though, that initially many racers did not even notice it.
In the hours and days afterward, and simultaneously with the sex abuse trial against disgraced former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, the Cortina organizers’ campaign prompted some serious reflection from the most successful athletes on the U.S. Ski Team.
“This is the time for women to stand up and this is an opportunity for us to change our system and how women are treated in the world — not just the workplace,” said Lindsey Vonn, the most successful female skier of all time with 79 World Cup wins.
“Thankfully I haven’t experienced any of that in ski racing,” Vonn added, referring to the Nassar case. “I find that extremely disturbing and I hope that now we can all stand together and make things better.”
Julia Mancuso, who announced her retirement two weeks ago in Cortina after nearly two decades with the U.S. team, shared Vonn’s view that she never heard of sexual abuse on the team during her tenure.
“There has never been anything that I know of — and I would be surprised if there was something that hasn’t come up, because I think now is the time,” Mancuso told The Associated Press.
Not that there haven’t been cases of sexual abuse in skiing.
Bertrand Charest, a former coach with Canada’s national development team, was convicted of 37 charges related to the sexual assault of young athletes and sentenced in December to 12 years in prison. His crimes took place more than 20 years ago.
In Austria, 1976 Olympian Nicola Werdenigg told the daily Der Standard in November that she was sexually assaulted when she was 16 by a male teammate and alluded to other, similar incidents.
The powerful Austrian ski federation said that it can’t investigate the case, however, as long as Werdenigg — who competed under her maiden name, Spiess — refrains from providing names and more details.
“It’s a good thing that there is now an open discussion and women are in a place where they can speak up,” said Tina Weirather, a World Cup super-G champion from Liechtenstein.
The bib campaign in Cortina was promoted by an Italian women’s association, D.i.Re, an acronym which when spelled out translates to “Women united against violence.”
“It’s great to bring awareness and to race with that on the bib here,” Mancuso said. “It’s a pretty cool thing to say.”
While the number of races and prizes for men and women has not really been an issue since the World Cup circuit started in 1966, the women’s circuit is dominated by male coaches and the gender divide can sometimes lead to communication problems.
“I’ve always been one to speak my mind. And it always bothered me when I wasn’t listened to,” Mancuso said. “Especially when you’re a young girl and you’re in a sport and you’re told to compete with the best in the world and win races.
“But then when you say, ‘This is how I want to do it,’ because you’re a young girl they don’t listen to you,” added Mancuso, the most decorated female skier in U.S. history with nine medals spread between Olympics and world championships. “That has to change and there needs to be more respect for young athletes. All it takes is listening.”
A lack of communication between skiers and coaches led to a change in staff on the U.S. women’s team entering this Olympic season.
Previous speed coach Chip White was brought back to replace Alberto Senigagliesi, and Karin Harjo — one of the only female coaches on the circuit — moved over from the tech side to join the speed team.
“It can be really intimidating, because it is kind of a male-dominated position,” American downhiller Laurenne Ross said. “But Karen is super strong and really positive and she brings just as much to the table as any of the male coaches.”
Two years ago, Harjo became the first woman in World Cup history to set a slalom course.
“She’s a great coach, that’s the bottom line for me,” said Paul Kristofic, the U.S. Ski Team’s head coach. “She fits in really well. It’s great for the girls to have another female there.”
– Andrew Dampf, The Associated Press. Eric Willemsen in Vienna contributed to this report.
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