Kayla Harrison and August L. Wolf are former Olympic athletes. This article was adapted from a letter they sent to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which was co-signed by Olympic medalists Caroline Lind, Bode Miller and Jimmy Pedro.
The strong, dedicated girls and young women of the U.S. gymnastics team who survived the assaults of their team doctor also were victims of a second kind of abuse — the negligence of the U.S. Olympic Committee. The health and safety of the athletes should have been paramount, and instead they were sacrificed to the higher priorities of reducing legal liability and protecting the USOC’s image and fundraising.
The case of Larry Nassar, the doctor now effectively serving a life sentence for sexual assault amid allegations from more than 100 female gymnasts he treated, is but the most egregious instance of the USOC’s disregard for Olympic athletes. Dysfunction, neglect and out-of-whack priorities have reigned for years at the USOC, which has been blinded by huge TV contracts and sponsor fees and lulled by a lack of accountability and outside oversight.
The people who allowed these conditions to fester have failed to fix it; it is time to clean house. The resignation of USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun, who learned of the allegations in 2015 and did nothing, is a first step to overhauling this insular organization. Now his boss, USOC Chairman Larry Probst, should join him. To clear the way for new leaders, senior executives and board members should offer their resignations en masse.
Congress created and sanctioned the USOC as a de facto monopoly with the sole right to represent America’s Olympic athletes — and it is Congress that must get involved in reforming it. We say this as Team USA Olympians. Kayla Harrison won gold medals in judo at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Games. She founded the Fearless Foundation to support athletes who have been sexually abused. August Wolf competed in the shot put at the 1984 Summer Games and is the founder of U.S. Athletic Trust. Also, we are gathering petition signatures in support of fixing the USOC at OlympiansRising.org.
The USOC and some of the 47 national governing bodies for individual sports have known of allegations of sexual abuse for decades. Since 1982, almost 300 coaches and officials in Olympic organizations, across 15 sports, have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct. As of 2010, USA Swimming banned 36 coaches for molesting minors on their teams — and kept the list secret, releasing it later only after coming under criticism. In the past 20 years, at least 368 gymnasts have alleged sexual exploitation, the Indianapolis Star reported in 2016.
The response to these horrors has been lackadaisical and circle-the-wagons. According to the Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOC, USA Swimming in 2010 and 2011 declined to pass a policy prohibiting coaches from having sexual relationships with their athletes, despite myriad accusations. The USOC adopted a ban in late 2012, warning the national governing bodies that if they failed to comply they would lose funding (albeit for their athletes). Although three athletes filed a police report against a USA Taekwondo coach in 2013, he was allowed to continue coaching until 2015, right up until his criminal conviction.
When athletes complain to officials, the USOC and some governing bodies have been known to hire lawyers to mount a defense against them. In 2008, a female Olympic swimmer learned that her coach, a few years earlier, surreptitiously had videotaped her and other underage swimmers in their locker room; the executive director of USA Swimming knew this and let the man continue coaching. She filed a complaint, and USA Swimming hired a law firm . . . to defend itself.
Likewise, in 2012 more than a dozen members of U.S. Speedskating told the USOC of physical and emotional abuse by their coaches. Instead of intervening, the USOC recommended a law firm to U.S. Speedskating, which retained it for an internal probe; it bought out the coaches’ contracts and never released the findings.
The USOC first convened a special panel on sexual abuse in 2010, got nowhere and in 2012 started working on the SafeSport initiative. This group opened only recently and received nine complaints of misconduct within about a week of its launch. Critics including Olympic gold-medal swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, of the Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOC, say SafeSport lacks independence, investigative powers and enforcement authority. It must be strengthened.
Our USOC needs a makeover, and this is an issue both parties can support. We urge the House Energy and Commerce Committee to form a “truth commission” that includes athletes, Olympic officials, members of Congress and outside advocates. Conduct public hearings into how the USOC quashed allegations and failed to protect athletes, and give the new SafeSport program more investigative clout.
Team USA is a national treasure. Every two years we get to enjoy the best of human ambition, triumph and hard work. It is only right that we ensure our Olympians are safe and sound, and heard and supported.
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