Cambridge gymnastics coach's lifetime ban upheld in 'precedent setting' case, lawyer says

A Cambridge, Ont., gymnastics coach who was banned from the sport last year over bullying of athletes has had an appeal of the earlier ruling denied by an arbitrator.

Gymnastics Canada permanently banned Elvira Saadi from working with athletes in November 2023. The decision came after an investigation into allegations of maltreatment by several athletes.

Saadi appealed the decision this year through the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada but a decision dated June 24 denied her appeal.

Saadi, 72, is a two-time Olympic gold medallist and coached individual athletes who competed for Canada in the Olympics in 1996, 2000, 2012, and 2020. She also co-owned Dynamo Gymnastics Club in Cambridge.

Toronto-based sports lawyer Amanda Fowler, who represented an unnamed current athlete in the proceedings, called the decision to deny Saadi's appeal "precedent setting."

"This is the first type of sanction in the world to award a lifetime ban for non-sexual maltreatment. And I think that's really important to send the message to the sport community that athlete well-being is important and athlete well-being is important across all levels," she said.

'Toxic work environment'

Fowler said the panel found Saadi had mistreated a number of athletes over the course of 13 years.

"It went through an investigation phase," Fowler said. "It determined that all of the complaints had merit and that they did in fact happen."

The mistreatment included "things like body shaming, name calling, criticizing athletes, yelling and screaming at them, creating a toxic work environment, limiting food and water intake, dispensing non-prescribed pills and supplements, persuading them to train while injured and really serious things like that," Fowler said.

In 2009, Elvira Saadi was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. This screengrab is from her induction speech, which is on YouTube.
In 2009, Elvira Saadi was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. This screengrab is from her induction speech, which is on YouTube. (International Gymnastics Hall of Fame/YouTube)

Saadi was handed a lifetime ban when it came to training athletes. She also has been banned for 10 years from training other coaches. She is prohibited from engaging in any other Gymnastics Canada-related activities for life including judging, officiating, attending competitions and developing content for training or competitions.

After 10 years, Saadi would also need to undergo training to be able to train coaches.

The decision by Carol Roberts, the arbitrator with the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, said Saadi appealed the Gymnastics Canada ban because "the investigation and the disciplinary proceedings were unfair" and the "sanction imposed by the panel was not within a reasonable range of penalties."

Fowler told CBC News the decision is final and Saadi has no more options to appeal it.

Hoping to 'move on'

Elliott Saccucci is a lawyer in Toronto who worked on behalf of Saadi as part of the proceedings.

"She tells me that while she wishes her gymnastics career had come to a different end, that she is at peace and wants to move on and enjoy the next stage of her life as much as she possibly can," Saccucci said in an email to CBC News.

"She has no plan to judicially review the decision, is looking to turn the page, and hopes that with this matter concluded everyone else involved can also move on and find their own peace."

But, Saccucci added, he and co-counsel Alessia Grossi "had serious concerns about the disciplinary process that Elvira was subjected to at Gymnastics Canada" as well as the unprecedented sanction. He said he and Grossi worked pro bono on the case "to make sure that the process before Gymnastics Canada, and the resulting suspension, were reviewed by an independent arbitrator" at the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada.

Saccucci said one of the issues he found most troubling was the fact that Gymnastics Canada had "secretly funded the legal fees of all but one of the complainants."

He said that arbitrator Roberts agreed that seemed unfair to Saadi, "and specifically noted that the process for establishing a quasi-legal aid system for complainants ought to have been governed by clear guidelines and greater transparency."

Breach of policy

In her decision, Roberts wrote that athletes were permitted to have an athlete advocate present at the hearing; in the Saadi case, one advocate acted for three athletes, and Gymnastics Canada paid the advocates legal fees.

However, Gymnastics Canada's policies require all complainants, respondents, and the organization itself to pay their own legal fees, Roberts wrote.

While she found Gymnastics Canada was in violation of the policy, "I am unable to find that Ms. Saadi was denied the
right to a fair hearing."

In conclusion, Roberts wrote she found the panel's decision to ban Saadi was "based on the facts and law before it. I find that it fell within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes and decline to interfere with it."

Fowler, who told CBC News she and her co-counsel also worked pro bono and was different from the athlete advocate, said the decision is a significant one for sport in Canada.

"It really does protect athletes," Fowler said.

"By having the sanction in place, it protects athletes from that type of treatment, not only from Miss Saadi, but also from those who are influenced by her, which will protect the current gymnasts with Gymnastics Canada, but also the future, the ones who are coming up through that system."

"Hopefully this is going to start to spur, or at least accelerate, that culture change and culture shift that I think sport in Canada needs."