Ophélie Claude-Boxberger says she was dumbfounded when officials knocked at her door last September, just before the World Athletics Championships in Doha, to tell her that she had tested positive for EPO, the performance-enhancing drug.
The French middle-distance runner insisted that they had made a mistake, that a simple verification would show them the error of their ways. ...
A few days later, the results were checked and confirmed. There was indeed EPO in her body — but Alain Flaccus, her former coach, says he injected it without her knowing while she was dozing during a massage after a day’s training at a camp in the Pyrenees. He claimed to have acted because he was jealous of her boyfriend, a doctor whom he knew would be the prime suspect.
... Was it possible for Claude-Boxberger to have received an injection without realising? And what was Flaccus doing there in the first place, given that she had accused him of sexual assault more than a decade earlier, when she was a teenager?
A criminal inquiry is under way, along with an investigation by the French anti-doping agency. ... One thing is already clear: l’affaire Claude-Boxberger is an illustration of how the country had shut its eyes to allegations of child abuse, long assumed by the French to be an Anglo-Saxon aberration.
Only now are opinions starting to change amid a seemingly endless flow of allegations of sexual violence throughout the French sporting world, often involving young girls. The latest were made by Sarah Abitbol, 44, an ice-skating champion who wrote a book to explain how she had been raped on numerous occasions by her coach when she was aged between 15 and 17.
She was 12 when she decided to follow in the footsteps of her father, who had competed in four Olympics, won the 1,500m title at the 1972 European Athletics Indoor Championships and twice triumphed in the Paris Marathon. ... A month before she took up athletics in the summer of 2001 he was trampled to death by an elephant on a Kenyan safari, so she embarked on her career under the guidance of Flaccus, her coach at the time.
He was helpful, particularly when her mother broke her arm and could not drive. “He would pick me up from school, take me to training and take me home afterwards,” she tells me when we meet at her home in the residential district of Montbéliard in eastern France. Flaccus started a relationship with her mother and was soon spending time in the company of the adolescent at the athletics club, at home and on holidays.
She says the sexual assaults began when she was 14 and lasted for almost four years. “Those years were very, very tough. They broke my childhood. I’ve always had to take medicines because of what happened. I take tranquillisers and sleeping pills every night.”
At the age of 17 she dropped Flaccus as a coach and decided to speak out. She told her mother that she had been abused and told Jean-François Mignot, the chairman of Montbéliard-Belfort Athlétisme, her athletics club. She says she also informed police officers when she was called to give a witness statement after Flaccus got into a fight with her new coach.
Mignot says that he had alerted prosecutors and the French athletics federation, passing on Claude-Boxberger’s accusations along with rumours that Flaccus had had “inappropriate behaviour” with other girls at the club. Flaccus was suspended from coaching for six months, but was never charged, Mignot says. “I didn’t hear anything back from the prosecutors’ office.”
The coach tried to justify himself at the time. “He wrote letters to say that he was in love with me, that what he did were acts of love, but not to hurt me,” ... “I was 17 years old and I didn’t dare file a lawsuit. My mother and my grandmother were ashamed. They didn’t want anyone to know. They said, ‘Keep quiet, don’t talk about it.’ They didn’t want me to file a lawsuit.”
As a result, the athlete had almost no contact with her family for almost a decade while she pursued a moderately successful career. ...
A year later her mother, who stayed with Flaccus despite Claude-Boxberger’s allegations, visited. She asked her daughter to put the past behind her. “She said, ‘You know you should forgive him. He regrets what he did. He made a mistake with you, but he has changed. You need to be able to forgive.’ She said, ‘When you go out running, he can accompany you on a bicycle.’ And I thought, ‘Why not? I’ll see if he really does help me.’”
She had no official coach at the time, and Flaccus went out with her once a week or so. “He apologised for what he had done to me, and the relationship improved,” she says ...
Last summer Claude-Boxberger, 31, was struggling to qualify for the World Championships after a series of injuries and was advised by the French Athletics Federation to go on a training camp in Font-Romeu in the Pyrenees to improve her form. Flaccus volunteered to go with her, and she accepted.
“I know that people have trouble understanding why I brought Alain Flaccus to the training camp,” she says. “The problem when you are a sports man or woman is that you come to see your career as more important than anything else. You want to become a champion so much that you are capable of putting your life as a woman on hold.”
No one suggested to her that she might be making a mistake — neither her family nor members of the French Athletics Federation.
Claude-Boxberger says that Flaccus, now 72, had fits of jealousy when Jean-Michel Serra, 56, her boyfriend, who is the former French athletics team doctor, visited her in Font-Romeu. She says that Flaccus threw away the flowers, ate the chocolates and removed the dress that Serra had brought as gifts. ...
When officials arrived at her house to say she had tested positive, “my life collapsed”, she says.
Ten days later she learnt that Flaccus had confessed to injecting her with EPO during a post-run massage at the camp in Font-Romeu. She had felt a sharp pain at the time, and asked him what had happened, she says. He had replied that he had pinched her by mistake. ...
[He] told l’Est Républicain, the regional daily, that he had bought two syringes for EPO for €250 in Andorra and injected one during the massage because, he says, “it’s true, there was a bit of jealousy. ..."