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Veteran Canadian gymnastics coach handed lifetime ban from working with athletes

Elvira Saadi Elvira Saadi (centre) - Getty Images

A Gymnastics Canada discipline panel has permanently banned prominent Canadian coach Elvira Saadi from working with athletes, according to a copy of the panel’s decision obtained by TSN.

The panel concluded Saadi berated athletes and used physical violence against them, created a culture of fear and control, belittled those who complained, and dispensed non-prescribed pills and supplements and instructed gymnasts to consume them.

Saadi was a member of the Soviet Olympic teams in 1972 and 1976, both of which won team gold medals. She moved to Canada in 1991 and began training gymnasts in Cambridge, Ont., some of whom competed at the Olympics and World Championships.

She had been provisionally suspended by Gymnastics Canada since October 2020 following the first of five misconduct complaints made about her by athletes.

In its Nov. 6, 2023, report, Gymnastics Canada’s three-person discipline committee wrote that Saadi, who is 71, would be permitted to return to the sport after a 10-year ban but would only be permitted at that time to train coaches.

“Ms. Saadi will remain prohibited from engaging in any other Gymnastics Canada-related activity for life, including, but not limited to, coaching athletes directly, judging, officiating, attending competitions, developing content for training or competitions, or volunteering on Gymnastics Canada’s committees or boards…The limited opportunity to train coaches following her suspension is in recognition of Ms. Saadi’s experience and technical skill and is intended to benefit the gymnastics community once appropriately contextualised by adherence to safe sport practices.”

The report described the complaints against Saadi as well as the investigation conducted by LeeAnn Cupidio, a Toronto lawyer who was hired by Gymnastics Canada. Cupidio began her investigation Nov. 10, 2020, and concluded it Jan. 20, 2022.

The complainants alleged they were abused by Saadi between 2014 and 2020. Their allegations were detailed in the discipline committee report.

Saadi, the athletes alleged, was “an individual who routinely weighs her athletes and makes negative and/or comparative comments towards her athletes, in an attempt to ‘motivate’ them to maintain a certain weight, and to ‘encourage’ them to ‘push through’ mental blocks and pain due to injuries.

“[Saadi] is an individual who routinely tries to manipulate her athletes’ energy level, weight, eating and drinking habits, by restricting their food and water intake and encouraging the use of supplements – at times as an alternative to food, and at times in a manner that is detrimental to their health.”

The report said Saadi also restricted the social interactions of athletes during national competitions and the Olympics, rejected the medical opinions and recommendations of professionals when it conflicted with her own personal views, and was physically and verbally abusive towards her athletes, particularly leading up to and during competitions.

“[Saadi] engaged in a pattern of behaviour that instilled fear that became ‘normalized’ amongst athletes, parents, and some members of the gymnastics community,” the report said.

The complainants all asked that Saadi face permanent expulsion from the sport, even though the federation had never imposed a sanction so severe for a non-sexual offence.

“A cultural and policy shift in Canadian sport in an environment that views athlete health and safety as a primary focus of the sport system, warrants levelling this higher sanction notwithstanding that this case does not involve sexual misconduct by Ms. Saadi,” the 23-page report says.

Saadi opposed the lifetime ban, arguing it had not been assessed to a coach not guilty of a sexual offence. She also argued that she had expressed remorse and regret for her behaviour.

Saadi’s lawyer, Elliot Saccucci, wrote in an email to TSN that she is appealing the ban.

“I did not act for Ms. Saadi in the discipline hearing, where she was the only party who did not have the assistance of legal counsel paid for by [Gymnastics Canada], but I am representing her in her appeal and can advise that the appeal has already been filed and the matter remains ongoing,” Saccucci wrote.

Amanda Fowler, a lawyer who represented one of the complainants in the case, wrote in a text message that she disputed Saccucci’s allegation that lawyers for all of the complainants were paid by the national federation.

Saadi was a member of the Soviet Olympic teams in 1972 and 1976, both of which won team gold medals. She moved to Canada in 1991 and began training gymnasts in Cambridge, Ont.

Saadi was named the Canadian Gymnastics Federation’s coach of the year in both 1996 and 2004 and she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2009.

Canadian athletes who have trained with Saadi include Yvonne Tousek, who competed at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, Crystal Gilmore (2000 Olympics), Victoria Moors (2012 Olympics), and Victoria’s sister Brooklyn Moors (2021 Olympics).