Abuse of power in women’s cycling, an all too familiar story: Bridie O’Donnell

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This morning on my ride to work, I listened to the interview of Genevieve Jeanson by Ella CyclingTips journalist Anne-Marije Rook. Jeanson’s career as junior cycling star-turned superstar came to an abrupt halt when she was banned for taking the banned substance EPO in 2005.

The interview is remarkable, both for the rider’s story and abuse she suffered at the hands of her coach, but it’s also ultimately inspiring and hopeful for the life she has rebuilt for herself after escaping him.

Jeanson, now 35, gave insight into her life as an exceptional cyclist, yet one whose personal life was ‘a mess’ and who was threatened, bullied, exploited, abused and held at ransom by her coach (and partner) Andre Aubut from when he began coaching her at 14 years old until after her doping ban commenced in 2005.

I found it very, very hard to listen to.

In my case, I did not endure the type or level of abuse suffered by this woman so young, raw and talented. But I was in a relationship with my coach, back in my early 20’s as a triathlete.

He was a loud, confident, successful and brash 30-something whose squad contained World Champions, Olympians and World Cup winners in an era when Olympic Distance triathlon was a huge money earner.

Unfortunately for me, he was also violent, aggressive, manic, paranoid, and suspicious. He would get into fights while drunk and then threaten to sue the venue, the bouncers and anyone to shift the blame onto.

He would oscillate between exuberant support of me as an athlete and humiliating me in front of other squad members about my swim times, my weight, or the ‘next big thing’ that had out-run me in a track session.

It was terrifying, not knowing what was coming next. I felt powerless to leave him, foolishly believing that any success I was having was due to him.

Finally, the night after the Noosa Triathlon, he got drunk, locked me in our hotel room and sat up against the door, intermittently crying and screaming abuse.

After cowering in the corner for six hours not knowing what was going to happen to me (he was 190cm and weighed 100kg), I climbed out the window, jumped into the garden and ran to the front of the hotel to call some of my team mates.

I never spoke to him again. He rang, he tried to apologise, make up excuses, tell me we could still date … still have a ‘coach-athlete’ relationship …

In my case, I was supported and encouraged to escape this situation by my family, and I wasn’t trying to make a living or maintain my life, or my ‘image’ as an elite triathlete, so the process was nowhere near as inextricably linked as Jeanson’s; indeed, as she says, her doping was the ‘least of her problems’ and when you listen to the interview, you will agree.

In the five years I raced internationally, two of them were with Italian teams where I was isolated from other Australian riders or even English speaking people.

Being a ride in an Italian team was sort of a joke – you were ripe for being hit on, not paid, being screamed at, left at races, not fed, not given information, or physically assaulted. All those things happened to me.

But I was in my 30s and I had people I could call, and ‘chapters for my book’ as Beth Duryea would say. I feel like I survived, but only just. It wasn’t any easier that others just laughed it off like I was reiterating a stereotype, with a ‘what did you expect?’ look on their face.

I tell you what I expected: I thought I would actually get the support they promised, the salary we signed the contract on, the races I was likely to perform well in and maybe, I don’t know … information. Sometimes even bidons in the feed zone.

Trust me, trying to race the Giro Rosa with no food and no water is a bullshit test you’re bound to fail.

Now, years later, I feel so sad, so angry that there are still young women desperate to ‘make it’ in cycling that are taken advantage of by team directors, coaches, masseurs, mechanics and men with implied power.

I’ve received emails from an Australian rider asking for advice about what to do when her ex-partner, who happens to be a team sponsor, is harassing and threatening them but the team staff won’t support her.

Another rider was given an opportunity to attend races she couldn’t afford herself, by a team owner who generously supported her financially and then confessed his love for her. She was 24 and he a married man over 40.

The sexual, physical, emotional and financial abuse that goes on between some coaches and athletes (and if we are to generalise: male coaches and their younger female athletes), makes complete sense: a fresh, new, hopeful talent meets a wise, older, mentor who can ‘make her great’ and the partnership thrives.

Of course, for the majority of male coaches, their relationships with athletes are appropriate, kind, inspiring, and don’t violate their positions of trust. I have been fortunate to work with so many wonderful men and women across many sports in whom I have absolute confidence, respect and admiration.

But cycling is an incredibly hard sport. It’s expensive. It can feel as though others’ doors have opened more easily than your own. That you have to endure the shitty team, the abusive DS, the creepy soigneur or the downright lecherous team owner to avoid getting sacked and sent home to Australia.

Given the UCI has remarkably strict regulations around so many facets of its governance, it’s bikes, clothing, anti-doping, team ownership etc etc etc some of that regulation would be well served ensuring that we look after the psychological and physical wellbeing of its most vulnerable members: the young, unpaid men and women athletes who are ripe for exploitation, abuse, mishandling and destruction.

Listen to Genevieve Jeanson’s story to the end, because she has survived. Despite everything that has happened, she’s learned more about herself and still loves to ride.

This article was first published on Bridie O’Donnell’s blog, which you can find here, and was republished on Ella with her permission. O’Donnell is a National Road Series rider and has ridden professionally in Europe. O’Donnell also managed to set a UCI Hour Record last year in January, around her work as a physician, before current record holder Evelyn Stevens raised the bar again in February.

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