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Health Mate abuse case highlights major flaws in the system

Health Mate Ladies Team (UCI Women's Team)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s been almost three years since the first of four female riders lodged a formal complaint of abuse against Health Mate-Cyclelive team manager Patrick Van Gansen with the UCI Ethics Commission, and while he was found guilty of violating the sport’s code of ethics and handed a partially retroactive suspension of two years and seven months by the Disciplinary Commission, many believe that his sanction was not long enough given the severity of his offenses.

The four riders who filed formal complaints - and the seven other women who gave corroborating testimonies in the media - might feel a sense of closure knowing that Van Gansen has been found guilty and has been suspended, however, this case shines a light on the major flaws in the system - everything from transparency to victim’s rights, resources and awareness, and to the struggle that victims of abuse continue to endure long after filing formal complaints.

The four complaints were filed with the Ethics Commission and centred around the Code of Ethics: Appendix 1, which covers physical and mental integrity, sexual harassment and abuse. There have been improvements to the Code of Ethics, which the Ethics Commission enforces, in recent years. It now covers team management and staff, and, prompted by the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) introduction of the Safeguarding Toolkit in 2018, it also includes 'anonymity of the plaintiff,' to better protect the victim's privacy and new dedicated reporting channels for filing complaints.  

In addition, all women's teams must now sign a Code of Conduct declaration at the time of registration, aiming to raise awareness of harassment, and claims of abuse are now thoroughly investigated. In more challenging cases, such as the Health Mate-Van Gansen abuse case, the UCI outsourced the investigation to an independent agency, Sport Resolutions in the UK, because of the number of people involved, and the complaints that spanned multiple years.

Despite these improvements, however, there are still fundamental flaws in the procedures and massive oversights when it comes to the moral aspects of dealing with highly-sensitive cases and the vulnerable situations that victims of abuse experience.

Limited resources and impersonal experiences

There are limited resources, education and awareness initiatives on the subject of abuse in sport at the federation-level. There are also limited resources and awareness regarding how and where athletes can file complaints of abuse. Although this is changing, and some federations are building in a more proactive approach to their SafeSport-type programming, alongside policy-driven approaches, it's still difficult to decipher where and how to file a complaint with the Ethics Commission. 

The Ethics Commission is comprised of a team of lawyers, and the language of the Code of Ethics can be challenging to understand, making the whole experience of filing a formal complaint feel too challenging and impersonal. 

Given the seriousness and the highly-sensitive information that athletes must share when filing a complaint, the process can seem incredibly tricky and daunting, which can deter victims of abuse from filing complaints because the process puts them in a more vulnerable position. 

Lack of transparency

Athletes who file formal complaints with the Ethics Commission are not a party to the procedure or investigation and they are often left in the dark without any follow-up communication.

It is written directly into the Code of Ethics; Article 21 states that only the accused person is a party to the proceedings. Cyclingnews understands that this is because victims and witnesses in a case provide information that is then used against the alleged perpetrator. Once all of the evidence has been collected in the investigation, the case is then focussed solely on the alleged perpetrator.

However, the victims, or the person who files the complaint, are then excluded from any further information regarding the case. 

This often makes victims of abuse feel left out of the formal procedure, which, as we've seen in the Health Mate-Van Gansen abuse case, can take up to three years to conclude.

Alleged abusers permitted to working in cycling until sanctioned

There have been no provisional suspensions given to alleged perpetrators and they are permitted to continue working with a cycling team in the sport after a formal complaint has been lodged against them, and even after they have been found guilty of violating the Code of Ethics. They are permitted to continue working in the sport until the formal sanction has been decided on by the Disciplinary Commission, which could take years.

Therefore, athletes who have filed formal complaints are then forced into uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations because they must continue to join their teams at races, team housing, and training sessions. At the same time, the alleged perpetrator, who is often in a position of power, is eligible to continue working with the team.

There have been two highly-publicised cases under investigation at the Ethics Commission recently; the Health Mate abuse case against team manager Patrick Van Gansen and the Doltcini-Van Eyck abuse case against team manager Marc Bracke. The Ethics Commission found both alleged perpetrators guilty of violating its Code of Ethics, and they were both permitted to continue working in cycling.

Neither Van Gansen nor Bracke were given provisional suspensions and they were allowed to continue working until the Disciplinary Commission announced the sanctioning decision. 

Cyclingnews understands that Van Gansen did not register as a staff member of a UCI team in 2020. He told Cyclingnews, at that time, that he has chosen not to be involved in women's cycling anymore. He will be eligible to return to the sport on December 31, 2022. Van Gansen will need to take a course addressing workplace sexual harassment provided by a recognized professional institute should he wishes to apply for a licence after his suspension has been served.

The Disciplinary Commission has not yet announced its sanctioning decision in the case of Bracke. So, until that time, he has been permitted to apply for a team licence to manage the Doltcini-Van Eyck team in 2021. 

Bracke has denied the allegations of harassment that are included in the formal complaint.

Maximum sanctioning

The Disciplinary Commission has the power to sanction to a maximum of a lifetime ban from the sport, which applies to anti-doping rule violations, and it applies to disciplinary decisions based on violations of the Code of Ethics, such as the abuse cases involving Van Gansen and Bracke.

In Van Gansen's case, there were four formal complaints with allegations that included inappropriate behaviour, unwanted attention, sexual harassment and physical violence, and there were seven other women who came forward in the media to corroborate those claims. Yet, the Disciplinary Commission has given Van Gansen a ban of two years and seven months (partially retroactive), which is less than a standard anti-doping rule violation. 

Van Gansen will be permitted to return to the sport and manage a women's cycling team after December 31, 2022.

No aftercare for abuse victims

Athlete abuse is a major problem in sports. Athletes who have experienced abuse must relive the abuse when they file a formal complaint, which is an arduous, complicated and emotional process, and athletes are often not informed during the procedure or provided with follow-up care and communication.

Athletes who have experienced abuse in sport must also endure the after-effects of emotional and physical trauma. Currently, there are little to no resources or focus on post-abuse care for athletes. There are very few programmes or resources that are in place to help athletes manage after experiencing abuse in their sport. In addition, the few programmes that are available, are at the financial expense to the victims of abuse.

The Cyclists’ Alliance recommendations to UCI Ethics Commission

The Cyclists' Alliance (TCA) is well-known for offering contract and educational support, career advice, legal and retirement assistance, and resolving disputes. TCA's case-work regularly deals with routine mistreatment and sexual harassment. It has also become a resource for women who have experienced or witnessed abuse and a tool to help navigate the Ethics Commission's challenging reporting procedure. It played a major role in assisting athletes in the process of filing formal complaints in the Health Mate-Van Gansen abuse case.

TCA has written a letter to the UCI Ethics Commission to provide feedback on its findings during the case. The full list of recommendations and rationale are published on TCA website here.

It found that the procedure of filing a formal complaint was unclear to plaintiffs; none knew how to file or where to file a complaint, none felt supported by the Ethics Commission, none knew what to expect in terms of a timeline, none received status updates regarding the case. 

TCA recently appointed Judith van Maanen, an experienced Legal Counsel, as a dedicated ethics officer to act as the first point of contact for athletes with complaints and queries. In an letter to the UCI Ethics Commission - Evaluation and recommendations on the Ethics Procedure - Van Maanen highlighted eight recommendations.

  • Make the victims a party to the procedure
  • Provide more procedural assistance to victims
  • Notifying Victims of the Outcome
  • Timing press release
  • More Insight into Content of the Decision
  • Continue Increased Transparency On Sanctions
  • Two way Time limits
  • Good Ethics is more than a just a procedure

"In the past three years, the TCA has supported multiple riders by filing complaints at the UCI Ethics Commission. We are glad to see that the UCI Ethics Code is subject to evaluation and subsequent adjustments and there is increased awareness around this topic," stated the TCA in an email to Cyclingnews.

"As a result of our experiences though, we have identified some major flaws in the procedure. The purpose of this ‘Evaluation and recommendations on the Ethics Procedure’ is to provide practical recommendations on improvements to the UCI Ethics Code, the procedure and the process, gained from ours and our members’ experiences (the “Recommendations” ). 

"We believe these recommendations will help us reach a common goal, namely creating a safe environment for everyone involved in cycling and further enhance the sport we love."

The UCI stated in its press release following the announcement of the Disciplinary Commission's sanctioning decision in the Health Mate-Van Ganse case, that it is committed to undertaking steps to create a more transparent process for filing abuse complaints at the Ethics Commission. It also stated that it is in the process of building a new set of guidelines and creating a more approachable environment to help athletes feel comfortable reporting their experiences with abuse in cycling.

In its announcement regarding Van Gansen's sanction, the UCI also stated its commitment to reinforcing the measures currently in place as it works to set up a platform for whistle-blowers, including at the internal level of the UCI and its training arm, the UCI World Cycling Centre. 

Training will also be provided to the persons susceptible to receiving reports of harassment, including UCI staff, UCI Ethics Commission members and the President of the UCI Athletes’ Commission. 

It also stated that in order to further draw the attention of all stakeholders to their responsibility for the welfare of athletes, awareness-raising material shall be published on the UCI website. In addition, dedicated codes of conduct shall be issued related to the different organisations involved in the training of young athletes to ensure that all persons concerned are made accountable for their actions.

Since Cyclingnews broke this story in 2019 Kirsten Frattini has gone on to write several exclusive and important stories on the subject. You can find all the coverage in the links below:

Riders file abuse complaints against Health Mate-Cyclelive manager

Six riders corroborate abuse allegations against Patrick Van Gansen

10th rider details unsettling environment at Health Mate Ladies Team

UCI begins investigation into abuse complaints against Van Gansen

Slappendel urges cyclists to file formal complaints with UCI against abusers

Health Mate to end title sponsorship amid Van Gansen investigation

Patrick Van Gansen to take legal action against women who allege abuse

UCI hires external agency to investigate abuse complaints against Patrick Van Gansen

Exclusive: Van Gansen faces new allegations of abuse as UCI delays Health Mate decision

Patrick Van Gansen found guilty of ethics violations in Health Mate abuse case

Van Gansen given nearly three-year suspension in Health Mate abuse case