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.