The dark side of sport

The culpable silence of the authorities

part 4/5

Clubs, leagues, federations, sports officials: all are concerned by instances of either attempts to cover up sexual assaults in sport or simply not reporting such events to the justice authorities as required by law. It is a code of silence that rebounds on the French Minister for Sport who is herself accused of negligence in one recent case.

The culpable silence of the authorities

part 4/5

Clubs, leagues, federations, sports officials: all are concerned by instances of either attempts to cover up sexual assaults in sport or simply not reporting such events to the justice authorities as required by law. It is a code of silence that rebounds on the French Minister for Sport who is herself accused of negligence in one recent case.

wednesday, December 11, 2019

“I was the first to speak out”, said French sports minister Roxana Maricineanu. “Until now there was code of silence in sport.” Interviewed by Disclose in her ministerial office on December 2nd, Maricineanu repeatedly insisted she was determined to put an end to sexual violence in the world of sport. She notably referred to the mission of raising awareness on the issue that has officially been handed to victims’ association Colosse aux Pieds d'Argile ('Giant with Feet of Clay'), which works in the field with a network of French regional sports centres for top-level young athletes, the CREPS.

Two weeks earlier, the minister had travelled to the city of Strasbourg in north-east France for the launch of the campaign “Start to talk”, which was initiated by the Council of Europe in an effort to prevent and respond to sexual abuse of young sports players. During the event, Maricineanu announced that she wanted to mobilise “numerous” French sports men and women on the subject.

Yet despite the activism of the minister on the issue of sexual violence in the environment of sport, Marcineau has appeared less inclined to break the code of silence when it involves the swimming club of which she is a member, the CSM Clamart Natation.

Since 2017, the swimming club in the town of Clamart, a leafy, well-to-do south-west suburb of Paris, has been shaken by allegations of the sexual assault of a minor by one of its staff. The sports minister was notified in writing about the alleged “silence” of the club’s management regarding a separate case of alleged psychological harassment, involving the same member of staff, to which she did not respond. Nor did she believe it necessary to launch an administrative investigation into the allegations, which she has the power to do.

In 2017, Chloé* reported to police that when she was aged 14 she had been the victim of inappropriate behaviour by her swimming instructor at the club, Mathieu D., during a massage he gave her. “He asked me to take off my underwear,” Chloé, now aged 21 and a student in the south-east city of Lyon, told Disclose. “He massaged me at the spot of the adductor and the groin. His hand went very far, right up to the intimate parts, even if it only lasted a few seconds.”


It was not the first time that the behaviour of the instructor had been called into question. According to information received by Disclose, Olivier Poneau and the club’s president, Patrick Parakian, were reportedly made aware on at least two occasions, years earlier, of his alleged inappropriate behaviour, and which already involved Chloé. A female swimmer at the club, Sandra*, says that she raised the alarm in 2012.  Sandra perfectly recalled events she said happened during a trip to Saint-Raphaël, on the Mediterranean coast of south-east France. “It was during a competition,” she told Disclose. “Chloé was being massaged by Mathieu, alone in her room […] I even saw her wearing a boxer short belonging to the instructor. That was not normal.” Sandra said she was shocked and reported the incident to then club president Patrick Parakian and technical director Olivier Poneau. She left the club a few months later.

In 2014, the swimming instructor’s behaviour was again the subject of concern. On July 16th that year, at around 4am, Chloé’s boyfriend received a lengthy text message on his mobile phone from the instructor. “I know since a few days that you have got back together again […] And as I know that with you in her entourage, I’m heading straight for the wall,” he allegedly wrote. “I’m going to tell her that I won’t be her coach next season.” Chloé’s father immediately spoke of the matter with Parakian and Poneau. “They told me that they were going to take measures,” the father recalled.

But both alleged incidents caused no reaction, and the instructor was never the subject of inquiries. It was in 2016 that a quite separate affair brought the story about Chloé to the surface. In November that year, Etienne P. learnt that his sons, aged 10 and 13, members of the Clamart club, were subjected to insults and humiliation from Mathieu D. He reported the accusations to Poneau and Parakian. But after a few weeks of absence, the instructor returned to the club. In January 2017, the boys’ father filed a formal complaint against Mathieu D. for psychological harassment.     

During the subsequent police investigation, a number of young swimmers at the club were questioned as witnesses, and when they interviewed Chloé she spoke of the alleged events concerning her. She then filed a formal complaint against the instructor for “sexual assault of a minor by a person in position of authority”. Mathieu D. was placed under investigation the following August (under French law, a magistrate can place a suspect “under investigation” on the condition that there is “serious or corroborating” evidence that they committed, or assisted the committal of, a crime).   

According to information received by Disclose, police found photos of the buttocks of female adolescents, including pictures of Chloé, on Mathieu D’s computer. The judicial investigation is ongoing, and by law the swimming instructor is given the presumption of innocence. Disclose was unable to contact Mathieu D.

©Martina Cirese

There remains the question over why the management of the club did not appear to take the different allegations against the instructor seriously. Disclose made several attempts to contact Patrick Parakian, who is no longer the club’s president, but he failed to respond. Contacted, the club’s technical director Olivier Poneau said he wished to reply in the name of the club, and did not answer questions concerning the two accusations about the instructor’s inappropriate behaviour that were reportedly made known to him. The written statement he gave Disclose read: “As a club employer in the field of sport, we are particularly attentive to everything that concerns the ‘trainer-trainee” relationship […] When a parent refers to us a matter concerning unsuitable behaviour on the part of a trainer, we take this request into account and investigate in order to obtain clear and veracious information.”

In September 2018, the father of the two boys who complained of harassment wrote via his lawyer to French sports minister Roxana Maracineau. In it, he denounced “the silence” on the part of the club’s management, which he said had “regular knowledge of the committal of offences of which the young members of the club were the victims”. He asked the minister to take action. “Independently of the judicial follow-up that will be given to this affair, we ask for the examination by your services, and notably the general inspectorate, of the functioning of this association,” the letter read. The father received no response from the minister.

Speaking to Disclose, Roxana Maracineau confirmed that she did not launch an administrative inquiry. “I am personally involved in the club,” she said. “I don’t think myself that, as a parent, there is a need today to open an inquiry into the club. I find it functions well.” Her response was despite the numerous suspicions and indications of potential negligence that we detailed to her. She went on to add: “I am in the club daily […] I consider that the managers in place are not there to cover up events of that type […] I only have the possibility of asking the question, and I did so.”

Urged by Disclose for further detail, she eventually drew the interview to a close, saying: “Given that we are waiting for the judicial resolution of the investigation, it is not for me to express myself about this story in detail.”

But the official guidelines published at the end of 2018 by Maracineau’s own ministry for combatting sexual abuse in sport underlined that in the event of a judicial investigation into cases of alleged sexual assault in a club, an administrative inquiry can be launched. The ministry document noted that this amounts to “two independent but complimentary procedures”.  

The case of the swimming club in Clamart is symptomatic of the silence on the part of sports officials in face of the sexual abuse of minors. It reveals failings that are well beyond the contradictions apparent in the approach of the minister.

  • 23% of cases were not reported to the authorities

It was a whole system that was denounced by ten members of the French national female artistic roller-skating team in a letter dated January 6th 2019. The letter, which Disclose obtained access to, was addressed to the senior management of the French federation for roller skating and skateboard, the FFRS, with a copy sent also to the FFRS administration board, the International Olympic Committee, and the French sports ministry. The subject title of the letter was, “The failings of the [FFRS] in the context of a case of paedophilia involving dozens of victims both identified and yet to be identified”.

The case in question involves Arnaud Mercier, an artistic roller-skating coach, who in December 2018 had been found guilty by a court in Pontoise, north of Paris, of raping minors. Among the plaintiffs was the French multiple champion of the sport, Ludivine Malle, who was repeatedly raped by Mercier between the ages of 12 and 17.

In their letter in January, the roller-skaters wrote: “It required seven years of a legal procedure for us to be recognised as victims. Years during which we were stared at, called liars, [and] forced to halt our respective careers for months, even years.”

"He took it very lightly"

The ten skaters complained of “unreasonable behaviour” and an “unpardonable silence” on the part of several officials. One of these was Nicolas Belloir, the president of the FFRS, and its vice-president, Florence Beuf, who are both accused of seeking to downplay the scandal. “It is not for lack of having warned about the dangerousness of this man,” the skaters wrote, recalling that an initial report of his seriously inappropriate behaviour was made in 2011, which was followed by two formal complaints made in 2011 and 2015.

“In September 2011, it was not sexual violence that the federation was made aware of, but rather a great proximity between an athlete and her coach,” said Nicolas Belloir. “Despite that, the national technical director immediately met her parents and the other athletes in the section where the coach worked.”

Following the January letter, the federation sacked three of its management team. Vice-president Florence Beuf was forced to step down from her responsibilities within the federation. She did not respond to attempts by Disclose to contact her. Two months after the storm created by the letter, sports minister Roxana Maracineau wrote to the signatories in which she assured them of her “personal support”.   

Accusations of an “anti-club” attitude

In July 2018, Nathalie* lost her post as part of the administrative team of the gymnastics club Cavigal in the French Riviera city of Nice. Her exclusion came after she told the club’s management that her 14-year-old daughter was allegedly assaulted by her instructor, Yohann L. Nathalie’s lawyer told Disclose that the events in question involved “touching intimate parts while making lewd comments”.

The man Nathalie accused was last year an award-winning athletics champion in competitions in France. He denies the allegations which he described as “calumnious accusations”, and he had asked for measures to be taken to “definitively” distance Nathalie’s daughter from contact with him. The club downgraded the level at which the girl was training, to keep her apart from the instructor.

When the girl’s elder sister also complained of inappropriate behaviour by Yohann L., the family lodged a formal complaint and, a few days later, on July 16th 2018, the mother was urged to resign. “Nathalie has an ‘anti-club’ position, for she is directly implicated in the case,” read the minutes of a meeting of members of the administration which recorded her resignation. “Too much information has been released outside the bureau, too many people are aware, and that stains the image of Cavigal,” the minutes added.

Today still, the president of the gymnasium activities branch of the club, José Guerrero, employs the same argument. “This mother created a very bad atmosphere, she whipped up all the parents,” he said. His wife, Annie Guerrero, the club’s current treasurer added: “She told this story everywhere. For us, when she was excluded, she hadn’t yet filed a complaint.”    

Yohann L. was questioned by police in November 2018, and placed under investigation by a magistrate in charge of a judicial investigation on January 21st 2019 into his suspected sexual assaults, physical violence against minors and sexual harassment**. He is under investigation over accusations brought in six different formal complaints. “The events are contested by my client,” said his lawyer Philippe Soussi. “He is presumed innocent [by law] and that’s not a stylistic device.”** Meanwhile, in parallel to the case concerning Yohann L., the Nice public prosecution services have opened an investigation against persons unknown for “non-denunciation” of criminal acts.


An investigation in Corsica


One of the most revered chess clubs in France is situated at about a 30-minute walk from the docks of the port town of Ajaccio, the administrative capital of the France’s Mediterranean island of Corsica. It is there, at the Echecs Club Ajaccio (the “Ajaccio Chess Club”), that 66-year-old Dominique Bellicou taught young enthusiasts of the game over a period of 15 years. Highly rated among the island’s chess-playing community, who number about 7,000 card-carrying members, Bellicou is accused of assaulting four young girls and of having repeatedly raped a minor, between 2011 and 2015. Yet the circumstances of most of the alleged events could have been avoided.

According to information received by Disclose, several serious alarms that were raised over the teacher’s behaviour were covered up or voluntarily ignored before he raped, for the first time, 7-year-old Manon*. The failure to react implicates the club management, the island’s education institutions and the Corsican Academy of education – one of the education ministry’s nationwide regional administrations. The principal accused among these is Paul-Jean Paoli, who until 2010 was president of the Ajaccio chess club. 

According to a judicial document obtained by Disclose, Violette* told her parents between 2007 and 2008 how she had been subjected to the touching of her thighs y Bellicou, including to the fold of her groin. Violette’s mother claims she informed Paul-Jean Paoli of this. “He reacted to that the first time with a lot of flippancy,” she told the police in a statement given in September 2016. Contacted by Disclose, Paoli said he did not remember such a conversation. “I guarantee to you that if I had been informed, nothing could have happened afterwards.”

After Violette’s account, the alleged perpetrator continued to lead chess games with children. In 2010, he was accused of forcibly kissing Sarah*, 17, during a competition organised by the club. A young male member of the club reported the incident to members of its management team, but no action was taken. Léo Battesti, president of the Corsican chess league and who employed Dominique Bellicou insisted that “at no time was this ‘forced kiss’ raised with me”. 

It was in the Spring of 2014 that a third report of inappropriate behaviour by Bellicou was reported. This time he was accused of lifting up the dress of Léa*, a 9-year-old girl. The incident was reported by Léa’s mother to her school headmistress, who subsequently summoned Bellicou to explain himself, when he denied the incident. But the headmistress did not inform the justice authorities, despite the fact that Article 40 of France’s criminal code (law) requires any public employee who “in the exercise of their duties acquires the knowledge of a crime or an offence is required to inform without delay the public prosecutor”.

Following that came the case of Emma*, a pupil in the second to last class of primary school. Emma said she had been caressed by Bellicou under her T-shirt and also on her buttocks. After her mother alerted the headmaster of her school to the incident, he informed the French education ministry’s local Academy inspectorate for southern Corsica, but which hesitated on the action to be taken. “At the current time we have not informed the president of the chess league, the inspector of the [regional education] Academy does not think it to be necessary,” read an Academy email dated December 12th 2014 which Disclose has obtained access to. The given reason was that to allow too much importance to the incident “would be prejudicial for all”.

Contacted by Disclose, the management of the local Academy of education denied any failing in its procedures. “These were misplaced gestures, but there was no assault,” said the current director of the education Academy of southern Corsica, Virginie Frantz. “There was absolutely no question of [inappropriate] touching.”

On March 25th 2019, more than ten years after the first alarms over his behaviour were raised, Dominique Bellicou was sentenced to 19 years in prison by a court in Ajaccio. He was found guilty of recurrent rapes of Manon, and the sexual assaults of four young girls. Bellicou admitted raping Manon on one occasion, but denied the other charges. He has taken the case to appeal, after which he will be re-tried in early 2020, and until that procedure reaches a conclusion, he is legally presumed to be innocent.

Meanwhile, neither the management of the Echecs Club Ajaccio, nor the staff of the French national education authorities concerned by the case have been the subject of an official investigation for failing to report the allegations they were presented with.

*The first names have been changed

Daphné Gastaldi et Mathieu Martiniere

Addressing the systemic failings

part 5/5

The extent of sexual abuse in the world of sport, and the recurrent nature of the problem, calls for urgent preventive action. Beyond establishing greater awareness of the issue, Disclose proposes ten concrete measures.


Addressing the systemic failings

part 5/5
Support non-profit investigative journalism
Support Disclose