Tyrol to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in Austria's ski scene

VIENNA (Reuters) - An independent commission will investigate former Austrian skiers’ allegations of sexual assaults by coaches, supervisors and team members from the 1970s until at least 2005, the Austrian province of Tyrol said on Tuesday.

Former Olympic skier Nicola Werdenigg said last month that she was raped when she was 16 by a male team colleague and that what happened to her was not an isolated incident.

More former Austrian ski athletes have since spoken out, though anonymously, since Werdenigg’s interview, reporting similar experiences and suggesting the abuse was systemic.

The issue in Austria has arisen as numerous allegations of sexual harassment in entertainment, business, politics and sport have been made worldwide in recent months.

Werdenigg, the 1975 Austria downhill champion, did not reveal any names in her interview with the daily Der Standard. She alleged assaults and sexual violence by coaches, supervisors, colleagues, service staff at a Tyrolean boarding school for ski racers.

“We take the allegations of physical and psychological violence and abuse in connection with youth sports, which have arisen in recent weeks, as a reason to deal transparently and openly with the subject,” Tyrolean Governor Guenther Platter said on Tuesday.

Werdenigg was questioned by Tyrolean prosecutors in the city of Innsbruck on Tuesday.

It was not known whether she named any alleged offenders. Contacted by Reuters in the evening, she said in a text message the interview was still going on.

The chief of the Austrian Ski Federation (OSV), Peter Schroecksnadel, said in an initial reaction to Werdenigg’s accusations that he was taking the claims very seriously and that he had never heard of such allegations since he became head of the sport’s body in 1990.

Both male and female athletes were exposed to sexual assault during her time at boarding school, Werdenigg, who finished fourth in the Olympic descent in 1976 under her maiden name Spiess, said in November.

Another former female skier, who wanted to stay anonymous backed up Werdenigg’s allegations.

A male skier told daily Kurier that sexual transgressions were still common in the 1980s and 1990s during his time at another Tyrolean boarding school for skiers.

His descriptions of admission rituals, which included the anal insertion of ski wax, was supported by another female athlete who said she went to a boarding school in the province of Styria in the late 1990s.

Several former athletes, who in recent days spoke to local media about sexual assaults they endured and witnessed during their active time, said it was hard to imagine that the ski federation knew nothing.

“Everyone knew about such procedures. It was thought that it was normal. It was barely talked about, and certainly nothing was done,” Werdenigg said in the Standard interview.

The ski federation said in a statement that it was neither responsible for the boarding schools nor had any influence on the selection of teachers,”

“We explicitly dissociate ourselves from being named as a co-responsible institution in connection with such incidents,” the federation said.

The association has 140,000 members, including World Cup winner Marcel Hirscher and Olympic gold medallist Anna Veith.

Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Angus MacSwan