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."