Documenting Sexual Abuse in Israeli Sports: 'He Would Tell Me, ‘Spread Your Legs’'

Ties between athletes and their trainers provide fertile ground for sexual misconduct that's hushed up, new Israeli film reveals. 'For the trainee, the coach is a combination of rabbi, teacher, psychologist and doctor'

A system that has typically ignored, discouraged and silenced complaints of abusive and violent conduct. (The athletes in this photo are not linked to the story)
John Locher / AP

“When I did stretches he would tell me, ‘Spread your legs wider.’ He’d say things like, ‘Why don’t you start wearing makeup?’ Or, ‘You should get nicer clothes.’” D., a former Israeli national champion and Olympic athlete, recalls that she tried to laugh off her coach’s comments – he was the only expert in her field, and had helped her set personal records.

“It wasn’t like I was living in fear," she says, "but it was obvious to me that it was embarrassing, disgusting. I knew it was sexual harassment.”

A dressing room in Jerusalem. 'I sprained my ankle during training and he shouted at the physiotherapist not to treat me. He abused his power.'
טס שפלן

D. is one of dozens of female athletes interviewed in a new film, currently in production and tentatively titled "Crossing the Lines," aimed at documenting sexual abuse in Israeli sports. Filmmakers Noam and Reuven Brodsky say they have discovered that such misconduct in sports, rarely discussed in public in the country, is as rife here as elsewhere.

“Research shows that abuse is especially common in sports, but we don’t have exact numbers because no one talks about it. It’s something that has been silenced,” says Noam Brodsky, who is a social worker.

Brodsky adds that she was first brought face-to-face with the issue two years ago, when answering the hotline at a center that helps victims of sexual harassment. An athlete called and told her she was being exploited by her coach. “I said to myself, ‘Of course, this happens – that’s exactly the sort of dynamic that enables such things,” she tells Haaretz.

Former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who serially abused hundreds of athletes, many of them minors.
,AP

With the aid of a grant from the Culture and Sports Ministry, Brodsky and her husband, a documentary filmmaker, have uncovered testimonies of abuse by coaches in swimming, basketball, judo, athletics and other fields. One former athlete told them, for example, that when she was still underage, she was raped by her coach in her own home while her parents were away. The Brodskys have heard many stories, some of which are presented here.

Reuven Brodsky: “Since most of these people are serial offenders, we hope to show a pattern of continuous, multi-victim assault by single individuals. But even if we don’t uncover the ‘Israeli Larry Nassar,’ the film is still important, if only for helping to prevent future Larry Nassars.”

Brodsky's reference is to the American physician who serially abused hundreds of athletes, many of them minors, and was sentenced to a cumulative 300 years in prison last year. The case shone a spotlight on sexual abuse in sports and revealed the particular vulnerability of young athletes, working with older trainers and physicians as part of a system that has typically ignored, discouraged and silenced complaints of abusive and violent conduct.

D. told the filmmakers that after about two years, A., her coach, moved from words to actions. “He hugged me really tightly and tried to kiss me,” she reveals in the movie. “I struggled to push him away. It was in a public place and it was extremely embarrassing. It felt like the earth was shaking under me.”

In 2019, Pierre Loquet, left, the coach of Israel's national women’s windsurfing team, was fired after his affair with his trainee, Katy Spychakov, right, was exposed.
Israel Sailing Association

The turning point came at an international championship, during which D. met a British athlete, and things clicked between the two of them. She sensed that A. was jealous, and at a party at the end of the competition, he asked her to dance: “I told him I was tired and I was going back to my room to read. And he said, ‘Ahh, so that’s what they call it these days.’”

That comment broke the camel’s back. Distraught, D. talked to a close friend and fellow athlete who had also trained with A. and advised her to confront him over the phone.

“He denied everything, gave a complete denial, but I still told him what he could and couldn’t say to me,” says D., who adds that thereafter, she shut A. down whenever he crossed the line. The sexual harassment soon stopped but their relationship deteriorated once again after D. participated in the Olympics. She was pregnant by that time, and A. accused her of choosing her personal life over her career.

“That year he just kept running me over, verbally abusing me constantly,” she explains in the film, although she didn't think that behavior was connected to A.'s past harassment.

E., a successful ballplayer, had a good working relationship with her coach until he made a sexually inappropriate remark to her during practice. She filed a complaint with her team’s managers, who summoned the coach to a hearing – but they did not dismiss him. Afterward, he stopped talking to her and relegated her to the bench.

“When he needed to say something to me, he would get another player to tell me instead,” E. told the Brodskys.

Research shows that abuse is especially common in sports. (The athlete in this photo is not linked to the story).
Nir Keidar

“I sprained my ankle during training and he shouted at the physiotherapist not to treat me. He abused his power, and I was really suffering. Personally speaking, I had a good season, but I cried at every practice. It was a nightmare,” says E. Ultimately, management initiated and mediated a confrontation between the two and the tensions subsided.

E.’s case illustrates the risks athletes take by calling out their coaches, who may then react in a vengeful way against them. Even when the offender is fired, the silence around sexual misconduct will likely allow him to simply move to a different team or field – where his behavior continues. In one case described by E., a medical professional charged with sexual misconduct by her and others was subsequently blacklisted by her sports association, but still found work in other fields where people hadn’t heard of his actions.

Rabbi-teacher-coach

“The relationship between the athlete and her trainer is like no other,” says attorney Uri Keidar, who wrote the gender equality code of conduct for the National Olympic Committee of Israel. “For the trainee, the coach is a combination of rabbi, teacher, psychologist and doctor, all in one person.”

When the athlete in question is a minor, the authority of the trainer is magnified and his role expands as well, says the lawyer – for example, from driving the young person to practice and to competitions, to providing physical therapy and even helping with homework. According to Keidar, parents become attached to the coach, too, which makes it even harder for the athlete to come forward if she has suffered abuse.

The code of conduct that the Olympic Committee commissioned Keidar to write in 2018 has been adopted by most sports associations in Israel.

“The code includes guidelines on how to ward off sexual harassment and on how to handle abuse sensitively and efficiently,” says Suzy Yogev, a former adviser on women’s affairs to the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and the head of the Olympic Committee’s gender equality task force. “Equally important, the code also opposes the conspiracy of silence by stressing that illicit behavior can and must be reported to avoid further damage.”

Noam and Reuven Brodsky, who are making a film about abuse of young women athletes in Israel, at the Docaviv Galilee Festival, November 7, 2019.
Nir Shaanani

In 2019, Pierre Loquet, the coach of Israel's national women’s windsurfing team, was fired for infringing the code, after his affair with his trainee, Katy Spychakov, was exposed.

French-born Loquet was not suspected of misconduct toward Spychakov, who testified in his defense and is involved in a romantic relationship with him. However, he was fired by the Sailing Association and the Olympic Committee withheld the award he was entitled to for Spychakov’s silver medal in the world championship last year. The complaint against Loquet was filed by other members of the windsurfing team, who claimed that the affair hurt their careers because Spychakov was receiving preferential treatment.

“We’re really only at the beginning, but I think we’re seeing changes already,” Keidar says. “We weren’t only trying to come up with a code, but with ways to ingrain it, as well.”

One such way is holding workshops for athletes that involve discussion and clarification of the boundaries between proper and illicit conduct, whether in practices, competitions or during medical treatment. Another way is to appoint commissioners tasked with addressing issues of sexual harassment in every sports association. So far, Yogev points out, only one complaint has been filed with the Olympics Committee since the appointment of such a commissioner there. But, she says, “The absence of reports doesn’t mean that the phenomenon doesn’t exist."

In the future, Yogev and Keidar are both hopeful that there will be more oversight over minors engaging in sports, more attention to the problems of coach-trainee relationships in the sports associations, and even wider-ranging legislation.

Keidar: “In sports, many things are happening behind the scenes and I hope there will be fewer in the future. My impression is that the world of sports is chauvinistic and invites abuse. I hope that the work we’re doing will make people’s lives easier.”

For her part, in the Brodskys' film, D., who has retired from professional sports, advises female athletes to speak out as quickly as possible after suffering any sort of sexual harassment.

“Girls should know that they have a responsibility, too. A girl needs to know that if she doesn’t talk about it, no one will know it happened," D. asserts. “It should be clear that your instructor, your teacher or your coach are not allowed to cross lines in any intimate way. The most important thing is not to ignore it.”