I love sports, but the structures surrounding sports, and some of the people holding power within those structures, could use improvement. That’s especially true in youth sports, where the imbalance of power between the athletes—children—and the adults who run the show is particularly dramatic. Add to that a governing body that doesn’t want to hear about anything but medals and revenues and you’ve created a situation in which a pedophile can damage young people without consequences. You’ve probably heard about Larry Nassar, but you may not have considered that one reason his case is notable is because he was actually caught and faced consequences for his actions.
One reason abuse is so prevalent in youth sports is because of the misconceptions many people hold about how sexual abuse (and more generally, emotional and physical abuse) happens. There’s no stranger leaping out of the bushes, but a trusted coach or trainer or physician who can help one athlete move up in the sport and while others get left by the wayside. Such individuals also have unusual access to their young charges’ bodies, which may be necessary but also offer an easy path to abusive, rather than instructive or therapeutic, touch.
Charlene Favier’s debut feature film Slalom, which played at Cannes in 2020 and won awards at several other international festivals, offers a realistic, unsensationalized dramatization of how easily sexual abuse can occur in a youth sports situation. Fifteen-year-old skier Lyz (Noée Abita) is chosen to train at an elite academy in the French Alps, under the intense tutelage of Fred (Jérémie Renier), who considers emotional abuse to be a normal method of motivation. Like a drill sergeant, he wants to break these young people down, then build them back again, forming them in his own image as ski champions. Many athletes have thrived under similar coaches, and it can be hard to say, from the outside, where tough coaching ends and mental and emotional abuse begins.
There’s another aspect to Fred’s style of coaching which doesn’t always get considered, however: it keeps his charges off balance and desperate for any sign of approval or affection from him. They will think his approval is a sign that he recognizes talents and achievements, and it’s not really reasonable to expect a young teenager to outwit an experienced adult at this kind of perverted game.
Is it normal for a male coach to tell a teenage female athlete to strip so he can measure her abdominal body fat with calipers? How about if that encounter takes place in the coach’s private office, with no one else present? More importantly, how could we expect a young athlete to know, and what would be the consequence if she refuses? There’s lots of other girls who would like to take her place, after all, and maybe she just doesn’t understand how things are done in elite sports. On the other hand, maybe the coach is grooming his next victim—trying a little something, then a little something more, so there’s never a bright line that marks where legitimate coaching ended and abuse began.
Abita plays Lyz perfectly as an ambitious girl who knows her own talent but isn’t yet up to speed on the kinds of games adults play. She’s particularly vulnerable since her single mother (Muriel Combeau) shows little interest in acting as a parent, something the smarmy Fred, expertly played by Renier, may well have spotted when selecting her as his next victim. It’s clear where Slalom is headed, and it wastes no time getting there—but what’s really interesting in Slalom is what happens in the remaining two-thirds of the picture, which takes an unexpected direction. Additional bonuses: the skiing scenes are also beautifully shot (in Val d’Isere), and Marie Denarnaud contributes a strong supporting performance as Lilou, Fred’s wife, as does Maïra Schmitt as Lyz’s best friend at the training center.| Sarah Boslaugh