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France opens investigation into underage sex abuse claims in figure skating: prosecutors

Paris (AFP) French prosecutors said Tuesday they had opened an investigation into claims of rape and sexual abuse of minors in figure skating following claims made by a former world championship medallist.

The probe, hailed as a "strong signal" by French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu and in which "the words of the victims must be heard", will focus on allegations made by skater Sarah Abitbol last week in her autobiography that she was raped by coach Gilles Beyer between the ages of 15 and 17.

"He (Beyer) started to do horrible things leading to sexual abuse and I was raped at 15," said Abitbol, now 44, in a video interview with L'Obs last week.

The inquiry will also "attempt to identify all the other victims who suffered... offences of the same nature", Paris-based prosecutor Remy Heitz said in a statement.

On the day that Abitbol's revelations emerged, sports daily L'Equipe published an investigation in which three other skaters accused Beyer and two other coaches, Jean-Roland Racle and Michel Lotz, of abuse and rape when they were minors.

Further allegations of underage sexual abuse emerged from former swimmers and tennis players.

On Friday, 62-year-old Beyer admitted to having had "intimate" and "inappropriate" relations, telling AFP he was "sincerely sorry" and apologising.

"I acknowledge having had intimate relationships with her," Beyer said in a statement.

"If my memories of the exact circumstances differ from hers, I am aware that, given my duties and her age at the time, these relationships were inappropriate."

Racle has denied the accusations while Lotz has not commented.

- Calls for resignation -

Abitbol's claims, which came on the heels of French tennis coach Andrew Geddes being jailed for 18 years for raping four underage players, gathered further pace on Monday when sports minister Maracineanu told Didier Gailhaguet to quit as president of France's ice skating federation.

"The weight of facts and their continuation over time illustrate that a general dysfunction exists within the federation," she said.

"Didier Gailhaguet cannot absolve himself of his moral and personal responsibility, so I have asked him to assume all his responsibilities and resign."

Maracineanu, a former swimming world champion, does not have the power to sack Gailhaguet but intimated that the federation would face state sanctions if he remains. Gailhaguet is due to hold a press conference on Wednesday.

Gailhaguet admitted to "mistakes", but defended his record on this matter.

"She did not listen to me and she certainly didn't hear me," said the 66-year-old who has been the most influential man in French ice skating since he first became president in 1998, some years after the alleged offences.

Gailhaguet has been president ever since apart from a three-year hiatus between 2004 and 2007 which followed a judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

He was suspended by the International Skating Union for three years from 2002 and duly gave up, temporarily, the presidency of the French federation.

Gailhaguet's accession to the presidency in 1998 opened the door for Beyer to take charge of the French national team. At the start of the 2000s, another skater made a complaint against Beyer which was followed up at administrative level but not by the judiciary.

The investigation led the sports ministry to remove him from his technical role at the federation, but he remained a coach at club level and held an executive position at the federation until 2018.

Gailhaguet on Monday attempted to deflect blame for Beyer's return to the federation following that inquiry, turning it instead on former sports minister Marie-George Buffet, who he was careful not to name.

"She removed him from us and she returned him," he said.

Buffet dismissed Gailhaguet's accusation as "some fog to escape the depth of the case".

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