The revelations about physician Larry Nassar’s widespread, decades-long abuse of world-class American gymnasts, with the alleged complicity of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and USA Gymnastics, exposed a badly broken system of sports governance in the United States. As the women abused by Nassar described their experiences at various sentencing hearings it became clear that the institutions that were supposed to protect them cared only about medal results — which meant that the systemic abuse of young gymnasts continued as long as gold medals kept piling up.
As they watch the Winter Olympics, many Americans are left to wonder how known predators such as Nassar were allowed to flourish.
The reality is that the federal law governing Olympic sports has perhaps been too successful. It restructured American amateur sports to give athletes the institutional support needed to win the gold. Unfortunately, this also empowered coaches and trainers such as Nassar to exploit young athletes sexually and psychologically so long as those athletes were taking gold. But the same law offers a path to reform if we focus on its originally intended purpose: focusing on the needs of our athletes.
For most of the 20th century, American amateur sports were run by representatives from the Amateur Athletic Union and other volunteer organizations. The AAU feuded with the NCAA over which would govern the national franchise for amateur sports that were played at the collegiate level.
Even after the 1950 Public Law that granted a federal charter to the national Olympic Committee allowing it to receive tax-deductible donations, amateur sports continued to operate in the darkness. Yet since the Americans still excelled at track and swimming and always won the gold in basketball, to outside observers there was no reason to overhaul the system.
In preparation for the 1964 Olympics, President John F. Kennedy ordered the AAU and the NCAA to resolve their differences so that Americans could have a better chance at winning the gold. He and his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy believed that the Olympic Games were an important battle in the Cold War. As Robert F. Kennedy explained in Sports Illustrated, while the Americans were strong in sports such as track and swimming, Soviet women were dominating other sports such as gymnastics and cross-country skiing, with those medals counting as much as any other in determining who “won” the Games.
Despite these concerns, no broad systemic changes would occur during the 1960s. But the 1972 Olympics changed everything. Although remembered primarily for the horrific terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village, these Games also revealed what many American sports enthusiasts, administrators and athletes had long feared: Incompetence by coaches and administrators was damaging American prospects for victory.
First, a coach misread a schedule so that America’s 100-meter sprinters missed their starting times. A doctor failed to properly file the paperwork for a therapeutic use exemption, costing an American swimmer his gold medal. And maybe most stunning and alarming in the Cold War context — the Soviets managed to manipulate time and the officials to steal the gold medal from the American basketball team. The Munich Games left Americans wondering how these mishaps occurred and how the system could be fixed to prevent them in the future.
A congressionally appointed committee sought to find the answer.
During hearings, athletes lamented the cost of training and preparation that they and their families had to bear. They complained about often inadequate facilities, pointing out that the only sliding track in the United States was the old bobsled track at Lake Placid, N.Y., and the only speedskating track was in Milwaukee. Athletes competing in high schools and colleges had access to their schools’ facilities, but those in other sports were frustrated by the lack of concern, especially on the part of the AAU, about providing the world-class training and facilities required to improve their chances for excellence.
American athletes also pointed to the structural disadvantage they faced because many of the most important competitions in their sports (especially for winter sports) were held in Europe. They argued that they needed funding for those trips, while complaining that coaches and administrators often took the money available to support athletic trips for themselves. And many athletes were angry about their lack of input into the appointment of coaches and support staff.
As the hearings progressed, it became obvious that the longtime AAU-NCAA conflict over the governance of amateur sports in the United States was at the heart of the problem. The system allowed an organization such as the AAU to control many sports franchises granted by the IOC, including to such disparate sports as swimming, luge and bobsled — without being equipped to handle the unique governance challenges posed by each individual sport. For example, the challenges of organizing a swim team from the thousands of school and college swimmers were not the same as the responsibilities for organizing a sport such as luge, in which there were few competitors and no national tradition.
While the AAU argued that it could do both, the hearings established that that was impossible.
The committee reported its findings to Congress, which led to the legislation known as the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act of 1978 (ASA) which was amended in 1988. This act appointed the USOC as the sole representative of the United States to the IOC and required it to set up a system to protect the rights of athletes.
This charge included requirements covering basic, fundamental responsibilities such as choosing an Olympic team. No longer would a random official get to overturn race results and name a friend to the team instead of the best athlete — which happened under the old system.
The ASA also required the creation of national governing bodies for each Olympic sport, with boards that had at least 20 percent athlete representation. These organizations were required to begin introducing their sports to a broader audience — crucial for less-well-known sports such as biathlon, bobsled or water polo.
Reflecting the changes in women’s sport since the advent of Title IX, as well as the strength of the Soviet Union’s female athletes, the ASA required the USOC to support female athletes as it supported their male counterparts. The ASA also contained provisions benefiting parathletes and promoting a more active population more broadly.
In many respects, the ASA achieved its goals.
Since 1978, the United States has fielded successful athletes in a variety of sports where there had been no tradition.
In 1998 and 2002, for example, Americans won silver and bronze in luge doubles, and this weekend, Chris Mazdzer became the first American man to win a singles luge medal. This was possible because the United States Luge Association holds the luge franchise in the United States, not the AAU. This frees coaches and administrators to concentrate on their own athletes and their needs. American women also realized success in newly introduced sports, such as halfpipe snowboard, and in older sports such as fencing where they had previously struggled.
Clearly the Nassar scandal has exposed serious flaws in the regime created by the ASA. But this regime has eliminated many of the structural barriers to American Olympic success. Most significantly, athletes at least know that they have clearly established rights and national governing bodies dedicated to ensuring their success.
We must move swiftly to correct the flaws in the ASA system — building something that combines the ASA’s positives with the guiding principle that these amazing athletes are human beings first, despite their remarkable talents. But we should also recognize that for all its flaws, the ASA created the conditions for the American triumphs that we’ll witness in PyeongChang.