Bludenz, AustriaAs teenage girls, they raced down snow-covered Alpine slopes in pursuit of winning Olympic gold. They were revered by millions of Austrians who cheered them as national heroes, their best athletes, the pride of a small nation.
Where survivors of sexual abuse are sued by the perpetrators
But to at least two national team skiing coaches, the girls were allegedly something else: sex objects, there to serve at their pleasure. "They are my girls, and I'm the one who will deflower them," one of them allegedly bragged, according to witness testimony at a defamation trial brought by one of the coaches in western Austria earlier this month.
In November 2017, a few months after the first allegations of sexual abuse broke against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which he denies, the #MeToo movement also began to unravel Austria's glorious skiing history. Nicola Werdenigg, a former Olympic skier, was the first to speak out on what she calls the systematic abuse of power that took place in the Austrian professional skiing community more than 40 years ago.
While Werdenigg did not explicitly name the male teammate she said raped her when she was 16 and her case never made it to court, by sharing her experience, others have been encouraged to go also public with their stories.
In doing so, they've taken a risk.
In contrast to defamation lawsuits in the United States, where the plaintiff must prove that the defendant's statements are untrue and made with negligence or actual malice, Austrian defamation laws stipulate that the burden of proof lies with the accuser, according to two Austrian lawyers.
Over the last year, at least three other female skiers have come forward with more explicit allegations of sexual abuse, speaking out in the media about how coaches and others entrusted with their safety and well-being raped or attempted to rape them, intoxicated them to coerce them into sex, and expected sexual favors in exchange for preferable treatment.
Students and former students of prestigious schools for skiers have also come forward in the media, saying that sexual abuse among students was part of the schools' culture up until at least the 1990s. Many coaches and teachers, they said, were aware. This year, a teacher at one of those schools was sentenced for committing or attempting to commit sexual assault.
Another skier, Helen Scott-Smith -- who trained under Austrian coaches -- said there was a culture where young skiers were seen as "fresh meat."
In early 2018, the Austrian Ski Federation (ÖSV) set up a commission to investigate the abuse allegations. The ÖSV said they found that sexual abuse within the ÖSV occurs less frequently than in other institutions of comparable sizes.
While the ÖSV commission found no systemic abuse, an ÖSV spokesperson said that it acknowledges there might have been "incredible regrettable individual cases."
Dina Nachbaur, the executive director of White Ring (weißer Ring), an NGO that provides support to crime victims, says she believes that some survivors didn't report their abuse to the ÖSV commission because it was "seen by many as being too close to the ÖSV." She says that around the same time that the ÖSV commission was running at least 12 people called their hotline, detailing cases of abuse in sport, including allegations of sexual abuse within the Austrian skiing community.
By sharing their stories, the skiers fear retribution in work and society -- the same stigma that plagues many victims of sexual abuse across the world. But in Austria, experts and victims CNN has spoken to say that fear is compounded by a legal system with a generous definition of privacy and defamation. On top of risking a defamation lawsuit and a criminal conviction, the victims could also face the humiliation -- and at times financial loss -- of having to pay compensation to the very men they say abused them.
"I can tell you that this really is a big issue for many women," said Maria Windhager, a lawyer in Vienna who's been counseling media and individuals on defamation lawsuits for almost 20 years.
Under Austrian defamation law, any person openly accusing a public figure of sexual abuse can face a lawsuit, and, unless they can prove that the abuse did happen or convince a judge that they truly believed that it happened, they can be sentenced to six months to a year in prison, or to pay a fine.
However, in the most "twisted" cases, accusers can even end up paying compensation to their alleged perpetrator, according to Sonja Aziz, a lawyer for domestic abuse and sexual violence victims.
In Austria, the bar to secure a sexual assault conviction is high, and convictions more often occur when there is hard evidence, such as surveillance video, text messages or eyewitness testimony of the assault, according to Windhager and Aziz.
"From the beginning, that's what I was always scared of -- that they'd sue me," says Julia, a former skier whose name has been changed for fear of retribution.
Julia, 66, says that she was sexually assaulted by the esteemed national team coach, Karl "Charly" Kahr, when she was 23.
Kahr denies those allegations.
When Julia first came forward with the allegations in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung to support the claims of her friend, Werdenigg, she says she left out accusations she felt could be libelous. Süddeutsche Zeitung asked Julia and two others who alleged rampant sexual abuse in the skiing community to sign an affidavit before taking their stories to print, a way the paper thought it could protect itself from a lawsuit.
Kahr -- who earned the nickname "Downhill Charly" during his tenure as the national team coach in the 1960s and 70s -- sued the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper in early 2018.
In addition, Kahr, 86, filed a separate lawsuit against Julia and her husband over a series of private WhatsApp messages they sent to Kahr's long-time friend and former skiing protégé, Annemarie Moser-Pröll, accusing him of rape. Those messages were read in court during the defamation trial against the couple this month.
Julia and her husband had written to Moser-Pröll in response to an appearance she had made on national television in 2017. Moser-Pröll said on that program that she didn't know anything about any sexual assault allegations in the Austrian skiing community and that she felt "sorry" that they were casting a bad light on the hard-working men who had supported her career.
Shocked by her decision to defend the former coaches, Julia and her husband say they wrote to Moser-Pröll to "remind" her what kind of man they believed Kahr and another former head coach, Toni Sailer -- Austria's sportsman of the century who died in 2009 -- to be.
"You should be ashamed to defend Charly Kahr, who, along with Toni Sailer, raped many women and broke them," Julia's husband wrote in one WhatsApp message, which has been seen by CNN and was read out as part of the defamation charge in court this month.
Moser-Pröll showed those messages to Kahr, who then sued Julia and her husband for spreading a malicious falsehood, a criminal charge defined as making damaging, unsubstantiated claims about a person to a third party or more.
During the defamation trial, witnesses described extortionist pornography, adultery, and the alleged rape of teenage fans, detailing violent acts and orgies.
Austrians consider skiing their national sport, and the alleged perpetrators and victims are as famous to them as global superstars such as Serena Williams and Michael Jordan. The allegations against Kahr shocked Austrians, the majority of whom live in the countryside and hold conservative values.
This extends to the men and women working in the judiciary, says Sonja Aziz, who has been defending survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence for seven years.
Although judges and prosecutors are required to spend time in victim protection facilities during their training, this does not necessarily include training on sexual abuse, trauma and its effects on survivors, Austria's Ministry of Justice said.
"There's a lack of understanding, and so the justice system often doesn't believe women because they aren't the 'perfect victim,'" Aziz says, emphasizing how difficult it can be to prove assault in a court of law.
This culture of fear has a particularly harrowing effect on those who've survived sexual abuse and violence by their own partners. Recent headlines about women being sued by their alleged abusers could exacerbate this feeling, Aziz said. When she counsels women, many of them bring up concerns about being sued on their own; Aziz says she openly addresses the risk of being sued with those who don't.
When a victim is not believed by the judge and prosecutor, charges are quickly dropped: a staggering 87% of men accused of rape in Austria walk free, according to Frauenberatung, the national women's counseling center on sexual violence.
But Aziz has also worked on cases in which women were then prosecuted for libel -- meaning that they were accused of intending to harm someone by wrongfully accusing that person of a serious crime.
In one case, a woman who filed a complaint against her abusive husband ended up being prosecuted for libel by the court due to testimony deemed "dubious," according to Aziz. She says her client was given a suspended sentence and later ordered to pay financial damages to the man who'd made her suffer for years.