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USOC apologizes to sex abuse victims, says Olympic sports culture needs change

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Ia.), second left, and Ranking Member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), third, led Tuesday’s hearing on sex abuse in Olympic sports. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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The U.S. Olympic Committee apologized Tuesday to sex abuse victims for shortcomings in child protection policies and cultural problems it acknowledged has contributed to a series of abuse scandals in Olympic sports organizations.

“The Olympic community failed the people it was supposed to protect,” said Rick Adams, USOC executive in charge of national governing body development, reading from a prepared statement. “We do take responsibility, and we apologize to any young athlete who has ever faced abuse.”

In response to questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about allegations of mishandled abuse complaints by USA Gymnastics, Adams blamed “a flawed culture, where the brand, the sport, and their (competitive) results are given a higher priority than the health and well-being of athletes” for leaving children at risk.

“That is what we need to change,” Adams said.

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Adams’ comments marked a stark departure for the USOC; the federally chartered nonprofit that oversees Olympic sports organizations has historically delegated child protection to individual Olympic governing bodies. Adams’ comments were the latest sign that the scandal engulfing USA Gymnastics — which came after previous allegations of mishandled abuse complaints by USA Swimming, US Speedskating, USA Judo and USA Taekwondo — could prompt changes victims advocates have demanded for years.

Adams pledged the USOC’s support for legislation proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would impose mandatory reporting requirements on coaches and officials associated with Olympic governing bodies, and revise the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, the law that governs Olympic sports organizations, to require child protection measures.

Former Olympic gymnasts gave emotional testimonies on Capitol Hill in March 2017, detailing the alleged sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. (Video: Reuters)

Adams was joined Tuesday by two former Team USA gymnasts who are among more than 80 women who have alleged Larry Nassar, former longtime USA Gymnastics team physician, sexually assaulted them during routine examinations. Nassar, who has denied the allegations, has been charged with dozens of sex crimes in Michigan.

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Jamie Dantzscher, a 34-year-old former Team USA member and bronze medalist, broke down in tears as she alleged Nassar assaulted her repeatedly over the years, including at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Like many others, Dantzscher has said Nassar inserted his fingers in her vagina under the guise of treatment for back pain. Dantzscher is one of dozens of women who have sued USA Gymnastics, alleging the organization is culpable for Nassar’s alleged abuse by allowing him to treat children alone and by fostering a culture of fear in which child athletes are conditioned never to question adults.

“If we didn’t weigh what they wanted, eat what they wanted, look the way they wanted, then they could take our spot away … We were kids. That’s all we knew. We didn’t know it could be any different,” said Dantzscher.

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Jessica Howard, former U.S. national champion in rhythmic gymnastics, told Senators of her first alleged assault by Nassar. She was 15, she said, and suffering from hip pain. Nassar told her, in advance of her treatment, to wear shorts and loose underwear.

“That seemed strange, but I obeyed,” Howard said. “As in training, I wanted to be perfect. He began to massage my legs, and then quickly moved inwards on my thighs. He then massaged his way into me.”

USA Gymnastics has defended how it handled the Nassar case, and has said former CEO Penny reported Nassar to the FBI in 2015, five weeks after an athlete first raised concerns. The Olympic organization is also drawing fire, however, for revelations produced in a lawsuit in Georgia, in which Penny and USA Gymnastics officials testified that the organization dismissed allegations of abuse by coaches as hearsay unless they came, in writing, from a victim. In the Georgia case, William McCabe, a USA Gymnastics member coach, continued to coach and abuse children for years after USA Gymnastics officials first received complaints about his behavior in 1998. McCabe was convicted of sexual exploitation of children in 2006.

“It simply cannot be the case, as it was with USA Gymnastics, where member’s reports of sex abuse were only recognized if they were made in writing,” Feinstein said.

An athlete accused her coach of sex abuse. Olympic officials stayed on the sideline

USA Gymnastics declined to send a representative to Tuesday’s hearing, instead releasing a statement from board chairman Paul Parilla in which he also pledged support for Feinstein’s legislation while pointing out the organization is conducting its own internal review of its child protection policies.

“USA Gymnastics is appalled that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in the manner alleged, and we offer our sincere and heartfelt regrets and sympathies to any athlete who was harmed during his or her gymnastics career,” Parilla wrote.

Dominique Moceanu, a member of the 1996 women’s gymnastics team that won gold at the Atlanta Games, was not a victim of sexual abuse, but testified about the culture that she believed “set the stage for other atrocities to occur.” Moceanu, 35, blamed Bela and Marta Karolyi, the revered former coaches and directors of the women’s team, for creating a “culture of fear, intimidation and humiliation.”

The Karolyis, who have also been sued by several alleged victims of Nassar, have denied allegations made by Moceanu about verbal and emotional abuse.

Adams, the USOC executive, told senators he expected the problems highlighted by Tuesday’s testimony would be solved by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a recently opened independent organization that has taken over investigating allegations of abuse in Olympic sports organizations, similar to how the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency polices drug cheating.

“This will no longer be left in the hands of people who clearly did not exercise appropriate judgment in many, many cases,” Adams said.