VIENNA, December 30, 2017 – To most foreigners, there are two kinds of Austrians: The ones who ski and the ones who have to explain why they don’t. Although the top club membership and TV viewing numbers belong to football, few countries are more closely associated with their national sport. Skiers like Franz Klammer, Hermann Maier or now Marcel Hirscher are generational superstars, no event is more important than the legendary Hahnenkamm downhill race in Kitzbühel, no Olympic medals are more coveted than the skiing ones.
The days of nine Austrians coming first at a world cup race are long gone, but there still is enough success for skiing to be Austria’s happy place. A source of identification. A source of pride. But recently: a source of shock, horror and shame.
“There were attacks, sexualized violence – by coaches, by attendants, by teammates and by ski technicians.” The former skier Nicola Werdenigg wrote those words in an extensive monologue for Der Standard, kicking off a sexual abuse scandal centered on skiing boarding schools. In the wake of the #metoo movement, Werdenigg recounted harrowing stories of a sadistic school director who had encouraged a schoolmate to rape her. As she managed to defend herself with a kick in the crotch, the director was standing outside her room, eavesdropping and masturbating. “The fact that the man who staged this act of misogyny pleasured himself in front of the door of my room was the first big shock of my life,” she wrote in her monologue that is available in English here.
Werdenigg escaped the perverted culture established by the school director by transferring from the boarding school in Neustift to the ski gymnasium in Stams. And although others revealed assaults at Stams in the aftermath of her monologue, Werdenigg experienced a good atmosphere in this once-revered institution, writing that the school offered her “a completely new kind of socialization”.
Rape and bulimia
Yet the suffering was not over. Werdenigg’s first full world cup season came in 1973; she was 15 years old, racing under her maiden name Spieß. The “insanely permissive” environment of the skiing circuit brought out the worst in some: “When I was 16, two men got me drunk and one of the two raped me. It is something that weighed heavily on me for years.”
As many victims do, Werdenigg blamed herself. She started suffering from bulimia, later connecting her sickness to the sexism and abuse of power rampant in skiing circles. “For 10 years, I abused my young body with uncontrolled gorging and purging,” the now-59-year-old wrote. Shortly after the publication of Werdenigg’s monologue, another female skier active in the 1970s came forward to Der Standard and confirmed the reports under the condition of anonymity. She recounted how a drunk coach pulled her into his hotel room in broad daylight and attempted to rape her, the skier almost breaking her hand as she defended herself.
The Austrian skiing federation’s immediate handling of the scandal was rather clumsy. Some statements were well-meaning, but uneducated, some were intentionally deflective. ÖSV president Peter Schröcksnadel drew criticism for pressuring Werdenigg to name names and allegedly threatening legal consequences if she wouldn’t, but later stated that he had been misquoted and only sent her a “friendly letter” asking for more information to weed out the perpetrators. As the public prosecutor started an investigation, the skiing federation did the same, bringing in the victim protection lawyer Waltraud Klasnic – a move criticized by Werdenigg among others. She argued that there would not be an independent investigation and called the ÖSV trying to process the scandal internally instead of relying on an external investigation “inconceivable”.
There was plenty to be investigated: The school director that was responsible for Werdenigg’s experiences in Neustift was a pedophile who would visit regularly visit schoolboys in their beds in the 1970s, the mother of a former student told Der Standard. The pedophile was stripped of his position after targeting the son of an influential skiing official towards the end of the decade, but was allowed to remain at the school as a teacher, as confirmed by multiple former students and internal records. The mother says that her son begged her not to speak out against the disgraced director in order to not endanger his career as a skier; she complied, but thinks that her son’s experiences drove him into drug abuse. He died of a heroin overdose before his 22nd birthday. The former director now lives in Austria’s westernmost state, Vorarlberg. He denies all accusations.
The Austrian system
Whether at schools or in world cup skiing, the core message of all who spoke out had been: These were not isolated cases. The culture of sexual abuse prevalent in Austrian skiing was later confirmed by the British skier-turned-journalist Helen Scott-Smith. The British world cup team had Austrian coaches when she was a young skier. “The coaches divided up the 15- to 20-year-old girls among themselves. They called them 'fresh meat' and they helped themselves,” she told Der Standard in an interview, adding: “Of course, not all Austrian coaches were like that.” Scott-Smith stood up to the coaches which led to them leaving her out of the team for the Innsbruck Olympics in 1976. “You didn’t do everything we wanted of you,” they told her.
After leaving active skiing to study, Scott-Smith returned to the sport as a freelance journalist in 1987. A different time, some may think. Yet: “When I was 34 years old, I was raped by a ski technician for an Austrian skier,” the 1958-born Scott-Smith revealed.
Back to the start: skiing boarding schools. These schools are a vital part of the Austrian winter sports system, the gymnasium Stams alone has produced winners of over 300 Olympic and world cup medals. It has also produced hundreds of broken boys and girls. Less than two weeks after Werdenigg’s monologue, another successful athlete came forward under the condition of anonymity. He had attended Stams in the 1980s and 90s and spoke out against the practice of “pasting”, a frequent ritual in the elite school: “Toothpaste or a more-or-less sticky substance would be administered anally. That means, a tube would be inserted. The worst would be grip wax designed for wet snow in cross-country skiing.”
The pasting horrors
Pasting used to be a common practice in Austrian sports, often used as an initiation ritual. “It’s not some kind of half-romantic story, it's blatant violence. Pasting victims would sometimes stand in the shower for three hours afterwards, and not just to clean themselves. They would sob out of shame, despair and anger,” the anonymous former Stams student said in an interview.
The athlete had never fallen victim himself, but had been witness to multiple pastings. He described it as a means to exert power and establish a hierarchy. “It's something that passes from one generation to the next […] Many victims became perpetrators. Pasting was an insidious part of normalcy, of the day-to-day. Teachers and other faculty weren't around when pasting took place, but they often know what is going on because they, too, went to the Stams boarding school,” he said.
The triple nordic combined Olympic champion Felix Gottwald backed him up, saying that these rituals were part of everyday life in Stams. “I had the impression that towards the end of my time in Stams, the head warden’s efforts against pasting bore fruit and pasting as a ritual was abolished,” Gottwald wrote. He had left Stams in the early 90s.
2017 is not 1973. The atrocities that have come to light have hopefully passed forever, the culture has surely changed – and most of the crimes are past the statute of limitations according to Austrian law. In addition to the investigations by the public prosecutor and the ÖSV, an external commission put in place by the state of Tyrol has taken up its work. Victims may receive financial compensation by the state.
But the shock remains. Where the public once admired the nimbus of the cadre factories, they now see what so many of the adored stars and medal winners went through – as victims, as perpetrators, as both. Remember the clean sweep mentioned in the beginning, the race that had nine Austrians among the top nine? Three of them went to Stams.