Yesterday I posted to my facebook page a link to a Danish news article. Danish Radio (DR), which does public news in all formats, did an investigative deep dive into the issue of public weighings by top Danish swimming officials. They also produced a mini-documentary that aired on Danish TV in primetime last night.
For the many non-danes who read this blog, there was a lot of curiosity about the story. Because of that interest, I’m going to do my best to answer some of those questions.
How were you (Chris DeSantis) involved?
In November of 2017, I blogged about former Danish national team coach Mark Regan. A top Danish athlete had retired from competitive swimming, citing an eating disorder. While that swimmer did not swim for Regan, it was Regan who introduced the practice of publicly weighing and shaming swimmers in the National training group over their weight, a practice that this report reveals went on through 2012.
One of the journalists who had spoken to that swimmer contacted me. His name was Anders Rud, and we spoke on the phone for over an hour in March of 2018. He wanted to investigate this further and find out how widespread the practice had been. I indicated to him that I believed the practice had continued beyond Regan and perhaps even to Junior level swimmers.
Anders Rud went on to be one of the journalists who worked on this story.
Who was involved
The journalist team at DR spoke to 23 former and current athletes in all who corroborated stories of public weighing and shaming. Some of the biggest names in Danish swimming, including Jeanette Ottesen, were among those to call out the practice.
Regan’s successor as National Team coach, Paulus Wildeboer, continued the practice. Beyond that, it trickled down to the Junior level, where Sidse Kehlet, once a top Danish age group swimmer, said that then Junior National Team coach Michael Hinge called her “fat Sidse” on a team training camp when she was 14 years old.
Another notable source for the story was former European Championship finalist Kathrine Jørgensen. Jørgensen said that repeated weighings and humiliation led to anxiety, depression and ultimately a suicide attempt that led her to be held in a psychiatric hospital for her own protection.
Regan has all but disappeared from the face of the earth. Wildeboer died in 2014. Michael Hinge, the former Junior National team coach, continues to be employed as the head swim coach of a Danish club.
Why is this a scandal?
Several people remarked that this is considerably less than what would be considered a scandal in the United States. After all, when I reported on similar behavior from Dick Shoulberg, there was almost universal public deafening silence over the matter.
There are two things I think it is important to say in regards to this, both of which I believe are compliments to Denmark and Danish culture. First, Danish people in general have a very high expectation of ethical behavior for their institutions. The standards are high, so while far worse behavior goes unchecked at an institutional level here in the US, in Denmark this is a big deal.
Second, your average Danish person feels empowered to call out behavior that they see as wrong. In fact in this case, there were several people beyond the athletes themselves who stood up for what’s right. The first was the club coach at the pool where the National Team practiced in 2004, Jens Frederiksen. He observed the weighings and comments of the coach and voiced his concern to Danish swimming about it.
I recall also in my time there a team official who was taking pictures of female athletes and posting them to facebook without athletes permission. When athletes complained, he was fired and has not to my knowledge worked in sports since then. Such is the general level of expectation and empowerment of even young people to directly call out behavior they do not like.
In 2005, the head dietician for Team Danmark (think Danish USOC) called Mark Regan and his immediate superior, Lars Sørenson into a meeting. She told them to stop the public weighings, stating that they risked athletes starving themselves. She advised them to make the weighings voluntary and take place in a private location away from their teammates.
Her advice was not followed, and the public weighings and shaming continued.
Lars Sørenson is currently the director of Denmark’s largest swim club.
The Head Cheese
But the person who perhaps comes off the worst from this whole scandal is Pia Holmen Christensen, the current and then Director of Danish Swimming. Christensen, I’ve heard, does not like me very much. Here was a previous piece of writing that wasn’t up her alley. Perhaps she should call Tim Hinchey so they can compare notes?
When asked about why she had failed to provide proper oversight in this matter, Christen could only provide the following response (translated):
“I feel very sorry, when I hear these stories, I have to say”
“First I want to say, this is not something that I had knowledge of. I’m not trying to wash my hands of it, but it is just to say, that if we had knowledge of this, or if I received knowledge of this, then I certainly would have stopped it”
One wonders how she can credulously state that she didn’t know what was going on. It only leaves two scenarios- either she is lying or she provided terrible oversight of her employees. Oops, there goes my chances of getting a job within Danish swimming, at least for the time being.
Results over all
There is a direct line from this scandal to what I often write about in American swimming, or sport in general. Its pretty clear that the inappropriate behavior of coaches was overlooked because the “results” were good. Denmark has been more successful over this time period in terms of medals won.
Sports organizations are due for an overhaul worldwide. They are mostly organized around competitive results as a mission statement, and so this kind of disgusting behavior gets excused based on medal counts. Until that changes, we will find out that athletes have been mistreated time and time again.
I often hear the criticism that such an overhaul would naturally lead to a decline in results. Which is why this post, like many others, will be tagged “Dark Ages”. Because that’s where that argument belongs. Russian nobleman of the 19th century also feared what ending serfdom would do crop yields.
The idea that athletes perform at their best under severe mistreatment is a myth that needs to die swiftly.