Sexual harassment on women's US Biathlon team leads to SafeSport investigation -- and sanctions

Biathlon Sexual Harassment
Posted at 10:07 AM, Jan 25, 2024

U.S. Biathlon national champion Joanne Reid was sexually harassed and abused for years by a ski-wax technician while racing on the elite World Cup circuit, a watchdog group that oversees sex-abuse allegations in Olympic sports found. When the two-time Olympian complained, she says she was told his behavior was just part of the male European culture.

Teammate Deedra Irwin says she repeatedly had to step in to protect Reid. Outraged by what she called "a culture of harassment and misogyny," Irwin, a biathlete with the Army National Guard, notified her military superiors, who immediately demanded action.

Only then, in April 2021, did U.S. Biathlon officials alert the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

Its 18-month investigation found that Petr "Gara" Garabik had engaged in repeated sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact with Reid. The Czech citizen was suspended for six months and put on probation until December 2024.

Wax technicians play a critical role in biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with precision-rifle shooting, preparing skis for the day's snow conditions so racers glide over the trails with ease. It was a power dynamic that left Reid vulnerable.

An athlete sexually harassed by a wax tech would have trouble making him stop, "out of concern it would jeopardize the athlete's performance," said confidential SafeSport reports on its investigation obtained by The Associated Press.

It was an argument Reid had made in complaints to U.S. Biathlon officials since 2019.

Still, it would take two years for U.S. Biathlon to bring the case to SafeSport, created to investigate and punish abuse in Olympic sports in the aftermath of the Larry Nassar USA Gymnastics sexual molestation scandal that revealed flaws in U.S. sports leaders' handling of sex-abuse cases.

SafeSport's investigation found that Garabik "engaged in a pattern of sexualized behavior" involving Reid, "including sexualized commentary and inappropriate sexualized touching, over the course of six years."

Garabik's behavior was well-known and team officials acted like it was normal, or "European," said Reid, 31, the daughter of Olympic speed-skater Beth (Heiden) Reid and niece of Olympic speed-skate superstar Eric Heiden.

"New women on the team were warned about him," Reid told the AP. For years she refrained from complaining, she said, as she tried to find her footing as a new team member and for fear the ski-wax techs would quit, leaving the team in trouble.

Garabik told the AP in an email that the case against him was "complete nonsense from the start." But he acknowledged to SafeSport investigators and the AP that his comments were sexual in nature.

"I have never done anything to anyone without their consent and the fact that I had some jokes and hints was never sexual pressure," he told the AP. "We always laughed about it. By that I mean other team members."

Last May, six months after SafeSport concluded its investigation, U.S. Biathlon retroactively changed the criteria for being pre-qualified for the World Cup team — and Reid was bumped off. Reid had to start over, competing in qualifying races. The change didn't affect the status of anyone else on the team.

Reid said she believed the move was retaliation for calling attention to how U.S. Biathlon handled the problem. She turned down a spot on the U.S. national team and stopped going to trainings.

"They treat me like a naughty 9-year-old, and being in team space has been very difficult for me due to this environment," Reid told the AP.

"There was no way I was going to put on my uniform and represent them on a world stage."

U.S. Biathlon CEO Jack Gierhart denied the World Cup rule change was retaliation, saying in an interview that it was developed and approved by a committee that includes athletes to set standards to help the organization reach its goals.

Asked about Reid's SafeSport case at U.S. Biathlon's annual meeting in December, he said policies were implemented to address the issues.

"Athlete safety is a critical issue for us," Gierhart told the biathletes and officials attending the Zoom session. "We're always working to improve how we address that, how we educate our athletes ... how we educate our staff, and the safeguards we put in place."

"I don't think there is an excuse," he added. "It was a process. The system worked from a reporting procedure, and a decision and a sanctioning procedure."

Reid told investigators the sexual harassment started in 2016, with constant touching, unwelcomed hugs, lewd jokes and pats on the buttocks. She was in her early 20s and Garabik in his late 40s.

He grabbed, touched and hugged her whenever they were in the wax cabin together, made inappropriate jokes when she bent over to put on her skis, and sent a stream of flirtatious emojis over WhatsApp, she said.

In March 2017, Garabik showed up drunk at her hotel room, pushed his way inside, held her down and tried to kiss her as she fought back, the SafeSport report said. Her roommate arrived and pulled him off, it said.

In 2019, with Irwin's support, Reid reported the abuse to then-coach Bernd Eisenbichler. He took Reid off Garabik's wax rotation and reprimanded him, but the behavior didn't stop, the report said, and two days later Garabik grabbed Reid's buttocks while giving her a good-luck hug before a race.

Garabik's "inappropriate conduct" even after being reprimanded by a coach suggests "an ongoing potential risk to safety of others, particularly women in sport," the SafeSport findings said.

In 2020, Reid and Irwin went to U.S. Biathlon High Performance Director Lowell Bailey with their concerns and, they told the AP, he responded that you can't teach sexual harassment rules to a European.

Asked by the AP about the response, Bailey said: "That's not true."

"Maybe they misinterpreted," he added.

Asked if he would have been required to file a report to SafeSport after the women complained, he said: "I don't recall the specifics. I can't speak to that, honestly."

In February 2021, a year after the athletes complained to Bailey, Garabik told Reid at an event in Slovenia that a package on a high shelf was hers — then grabbed her between the legs and lifted her up by the crotch to reach it, the SafeSport findings said.

In a statement two months later to U.S. Biathlon, Irwin said female athletes were treated with disrespect, "and then everyone refuses to address it and calls it 'part of European culture' or 'just a joke.'"

U.S. Biathlon removed Garabik from working with its teams in November 2021.

During the SafeSport investigation Reid underwent hours of questioning, a process that retraumatized her, she said.

"Does it serve some higher purpose for me to relive this?" she said in an April 2021 letter to U.S. Biathlon. "Does the specific time I opened my door at well past midnight to a knock that turned out to be my drunk ski technician, only to have his tongue down my throat seconds later, help some database? What day was it? How many centimeters did his tongue go down? Did he taste like Pilsner or was it stout?"

SafeSport CEO Ju'Riese Colón acknowledged investigations can be stressful, but said it's important work.

"Culture change requires accountability," she said in an email to the AP. "We understand that revisiting traumatic experiences is difficult for those who come forward, and the center has put in place measures to help minimize that impact."

To protect Reid from Garabik, Irwin told the AP she would get between Reid and the wax tech. The women became "battle buddies," she said — a military term meaning soldiers take care of each other.

“You never go anywhere without your battle buddy so there's always two against one and there's always someone to corroborate your story," she told the AP in December while racing in Austria.

The AP does not generally identify victims of sexual abuse except in cases where they publicly identify themselves.

In November, after years of silence, Reid went public with her SafeSport story on her popular Instagram and Facebook pages, and was encouraged by the outpouring of support.

"I am absolutely floored, actually, by the amount of people coming out of the woodwork on behalf of me and the safety of our women’s team and biathletes in general,” Reid told the AP.

“Though it sucks right now it’s an amazing, inspiring thing.”