As the number of women accusing former Olympic gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar of sexual assault has continued to rise this year — surpassing 130, including at least five former Team USA members — victims, lawyers and members of Congress have directed outrage at USA Gymnastics, whose chief executive resigned in March.
While the Nassar case has captured public attention because of the renown of a few of his accusers, it is far from an isolated instance. The problem of sexual abuse in Olympic sports organizations extends well beyond the confines of one sport, or one executive.
More than 290 coaches and officials associated with the United States’ Olympic sports organizations have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct since 1982, according to a Washington Post review of sport governing body banned lists, news clips and court records in several states. The figure spans parts of 15 sports and amounts to an average of eight adults connected to an Olympic organization accused of sexual misconduct every year — or about one every six weeks — for more than 36 years.
The figure includes more than 175 officials convicted of sex crimes as well as those who never faced criminal charges and have denied claims, such as Andy Gabel, an Olympian and former U.S. Speedskating president banned from the sport in 2013 after two women alleged he forced himself on them; and Don Peters, the 1984 Olympic gymnastics coach banned after two women alleged he had sex with them when they were teenagers.
The Nassar case — in which USA Gymnastics officials waited five weeks after first hearing a complaint to report Nassar to law enforcement in 2015, and then didn’t inform Michigan State, where he continued to work with young athletes until August 2016 — is the latest in a series of well-publicized incidents in which Olympic sports organizations committed errors that left children at risk.
Why does this keep happening? Interviews with dozens of officials in Olympic sports and a review of thousands of pages of records produced in lawsuits filed by abuse victims highlight a culture in which limiting legal risk and preserving gold medal chances have been given priority over safeguarding children.
Until this year, the U.S. Olympic Committee resisted calls for changes to a federal law that has, at times, inspired flawed responses by Olympic officials to suspicions of abuse. Top officials at other Olympic sports organizations delayed reforms by balking at common child protection measures as costly and intrusive. And Olympic sports lawyers — victims’ advocates blame one influential firm, in particular — have instilled an unusually strong fear of lawsuits that routinely arises when new child-protection measures are proposed.
“We’re hearing all about gymnastics, but the problems in gymnastics are equally as prevalent in every other sport,” said Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer and abuse victim who founded Safe4Athletes, a nonprofit that works to combat abuse. “People are starting to understand the complexity of this and how this stays in the system. . . . It stays in the system because of governance, because of the people in charge.”
In the past three years, the USOC has improved safety policies significantly across Olympic sports organizations. Criminal background checks and abuse education programs — common in other youth-serving organizations since the 1990s — have been mandatory since 2014. This year, a new nonprofit agency, the U.S. Center for SafeSport, took over dealing with suspected abuse in Olympic sports.
USOC board Chairman Larry Probst and Chief Executive Scott Blackmun declined interview requests for this story. In an interview, USOC board member Susanne Lyons praised Blackmun for changes he has pushed since taking over in 2010.
“I think we all feel, in hindsight, how could we have let this take so long? . . . All up and down that food chain, there were failures in the system that I think everyone regrets,” Lyons said. “The best we can do now is just go forward aggressively.”
In a year marked by long-quiet allegations of harassment and assault against powerful men erupting into public view, the Nassar case has brought unprecedented attention to abuse in Olympic sports. In the past few weeks, gymnasts McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman have gone public with their allegations of abuse by Nassar.
“I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there were unnecessary and disgusting,” Maroney said.
In speaking out, these women have highlighted ingrained, cultural aspects of Olympic sports organizations — attitudes and customs they’ve observed in leadership as well as in local coaches and clubs — that present challenges to the current reform effort.
“Most Olympic sports are set up in a way that is not great for protecting children. You have people at the higher levels who really, really want to win,” said AnnMaria De Mars, a technology executive and mother of Olympic judo fighter and mixed martial arts star Ronda Rousey. “And then you have lots of young women spending lots of time with older men.”
The reach of a law
The bureaucracy that oversees Olympic sports in the United States is, essentially, a pyramid.
At the top sits the USOC, headquartered in Colorado Springs with average annual revenue of about $230 million.
Underneath the USOC are 47 Olympic and Pan American national governing bodies — one for each sport, Olympic insiders call them “NGBs” — many also headquartered in Colorado Springs.
Many of these sport NGBs, as a fundraising mechanism, offer memberships that allow local coaches and clubs across the country the opportunity to use the prestige of an association with the Olympics to attract students. These coaches and clubs form the bottom of the Olympic sports pyramid, and they work with at least 11 million children.
Before last year, USA Gymnastics and its chief executive, Steve Penny, were considered by other Olympic executives to be leaders in the effort to combat abuse.
In August 2016, when an Indianapolis Star investigation revealed USA Gymnastics executives had dismissed allegations of abusive behavior against four coaches who went on to sexually assault children, the USOC defended USA Gymnastics as “one of our most active, supportive and concerned partners” in abuse prevention.
Then a series of events raised concerns in Congress.
The next month, dozens of women started coming forward accusing Nassar of assault. In March, court documents released in a lawsuit in Georgia showed Penny had never undergone formal training on abuse prevention, even though he personally handled all abuse complaints for USA Gymnastics.
The documents included a letter, sent from a previous CEO of USA Gymnastics to top USOC leaders — including Blackmun — alerting them that some Olympic organizations were ignoring abuse prevention entirely in 1999, nearly 15 years before the USOC first required basic abuse safety measures.
Days later, the USOC board urged Penny to resign.
Lyons said she and her fellow board members did not think Penny had been aware of allegations against Nassar before the first known report in 2015, but that, “at the end of the day . . . it happened on his watch. And that’s why we had the very difficult conversation [with board members] to say we don’t see how he or the organization can recover from the magnitude of the Nassar situation; we think there needs to be dramatic change.”
The documents released in March included depositions from two former USA Gymnastics officials who testified that aspects of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act — the federal law that governs Olympic sports organizations — inspired USA Gymnastics’ policy that required a written allegation of abuse from a victim or victim’s parent before the organization could respond.
“I personally would like to have been more aggressive, but it wasn’t an option,” said Kathy Kelly, a former vice president at the organization. “The Amateur Sports Act . . . clearly states that we, the NGB, or any other NGB, cannot restrict anybody’s ability to pursue participation in Olympics. . . . Our bylaws are set up to reflect, as we are instructed to by, the [U.S.] Olympic Committee.”
The Ted Stevens Act has played a recurring role in mishandled Olympic abuse cases — including prior incidents at USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo — because portions of the law intended to protect athletes’ rights to compete have impeded attempts by victims and advocates to quickly bar coaches suspected of abuse from working with children.
In March, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed legislation that would amend the Ted Stevens Act to make everyone who works under Olympic organizations mandatory reporters of suspected abuse and require stronger abuse-prevention measures throughout these organizations. The bill passed this week, after incorporating changes recommended by the Senate Commerce Committee.
Starr, the former Olympic swimmer and victims’ advocate, said she and others have been suggesting changes to the Ted Stevens Act since 2011, after a similar abuse crisis at USA Swimming. Top USOC leaders, including Blackmun, have been reluctant to support legislation, she said.
“I’ve been pounding on the doors for the last six years on this,” Starr said. “I’m glad that Dianne Feinstein is actually doing something and stepping up. I wish it had been done earlier.”
In March, in an interview for another story, Blackmun said he did not oppose Feinstein’s legislation, which had just been announced, but that there was nothing wrong with the Ted Stevens Act. Three weeks later, the USOC announced its support for the bill.
In a statement, the USOC said it had convened several working groups focused on abuse prevention since 2010, and none had suggested changes to the Ted Stevens Act.
“It was not a part of our strategy,” USOC spokesman Mark Jones wrote.
‘Athletes’ or ‘children’?
The USOC’s ability to influence has its limits. Among the sport NGBs, some have leaders less inclined to take direction from Colorado Springs.
In 2012, as word started to circulate that the USOC was considering making background checks and education programs mandatory, officials in two sports pushed back.
In a December 2012 letter to Blackmun, U.S. Tennis Association official F. Skip Gilbert vehemently objected to the USOC’s attempt to mandate abuse prevention policies, calling it “misguided at best” and saying it “equates to the same bullying and harassment charges that the USOC wants to mandate that we keep out of our sport.”
Gilbert, who no longer works for the USTA, declined to comment. In a statement, the USTA said the organization had its own abuse-prevention program in 2012.
“We felt that we would be able to best implement a program specific to tennis,” spokesman Chris Widmaier said. “Over time, our position evolved.”
In a 2012 email to Blackmun, USA Softball official Ron Radigonda expressed concerns about the expense of criminal background checks, which cost about $20 each. Mandatory background checks for all adults who work with children at local organizations could affect “competitive market share,” wrote Radigonda, who lamented that USA Softball had recently lost business in one state because a local official there decided to require background checks for umpires.
“Is there really a need for a top-down one-size-fits-all USOC approach to these issues?” Radigonda wrote.
Radigonda did not return messages requesting comment. USA Softball declined to answer questions about its background check policies.
Within the sports more closely associated with the Olympics, any lack of vigilance is particularly dangerous, experts believe. In June, when former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels released her review of USA Gymnastics’ abuse prevention practices, she devoted an entire section to cultural factors that leave children at heightened risk of abuse in elite gymnastics.
Young athletes are often desperate for the attention and approval of coaches who — particularly in individual sports — have an unusual amount of control and power over athlete success. So-called “helicopter parenting” is discouraged; famed Olympic coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi prohibited parents from visiting the camp where the USA Gymnastics women’s team trained.
Parents, many of whom are unfamiliar with the intricacies of an esoteric sport, often defer to coaches. And the hypercompetitive atmosphere — which affects rival athletes, as well as their parents — means the rare victims willing to come forward risk vilification.
“Everything about this environment, while understandable in the context of a highly competitive Olympic sport, tends to suppress reporting of inappropriate activity,” Daniels wrote.
In 2013, USA Swimming commissioned its own report after a series of abuse cases across the country, including the conviction that year of Rick Curl, a D.C.-area swim coach, for his sexual relationship with an underage swimmer in the 1980s.
As Victor Vieth, a former sex crimes prosecutor, researched USA Swimming’s abuse prevention policies, he noted with surprise that romantic relationships between athletes and coaches were condoned until 2013.
“There was a great reluctance for people to finally recognize that that was an abuse of power, just like a relationship between a teacher and a student,” Vieth said.
Something else struck Vieth as he interviewed adults throughout elite swimming, from USA Swimming officials in Colorado Springs to local coaches and parents across the country: a reluctance to use the word “children.”
“Constantly, it didn’t matter who we were talking to. . . . They always called them ‘athletes,’ ” Vieth said. “We really wanted them to focus on, you’ve got 320,000 children in your organization, and you need to see them first as children before you see them as athletes. There really was the mentality of the possibility that this could be the next gold medal winner at the Olympics, and that mentality was not just among the coaches and the people running the groups; it was among the parents themselves.”
As Vieth reviewed USA Swimming’s files and interviewed victims, he came across several situations in which a victim came forward and the other swimmers and parents rallied around the coach.
“They put blinders on . . . because he could cut their kid’s time by two seconds,” Vieth said.
In 2010, as USA Swimming proposed a mandatory abuse education program for all coaches, John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association — essentially, a coaches union — argued against the measure, which ultimately was approved.
“Educate about what? Does anyone need education to know what a pedophile act is? The only education that needs to take place is parents having the courage to go to the police,” Leonard wrote in an email to USA Swimming CEO Chuck Wielgus produced as evidence in a lawsuit.
In 2013, Leonard published an op-ed in the coaches association’s newsletter expressing outrage that USA Swimming leaders were considering making abuse prevention a core part of the organization’s mission, a common measure for youth-serving agencies.
“The statement was made to me that ‘Protecting athletes from sex abuse is a core function of USA Swimming,’ ” Leonard wrote. “That’s UTTER NONSENSE. The core business of USA Swimming is BUILD, PROMOTE and ACHIEVE. . . . The core business of the FAMILY is to keep our children SAFE.”
Leonard, still executive director of the coaches association, did not respond to multiple interview requests.
While the 47 sport NGBs are diverse in many ways — USA Swimming annually brings in nearly $35 million and has 94 employees; USA Team Handball brings in about $500,000 and has four employees — many of them have one thing in common: their lawyers.
The Olympic sports legal market is dominated by a small number of attorneys and firms in Colorado Springs and Indianapolis, where most of the governing bodies are clustered. Victims’ advocates blame these lawyers and their emphasis on avoiding potential litigation, which repeatedly arises during discussions of abuse prevention in Olympic sports.
In 2011, the USOC started discussing a sex abuse prevention handbook. Circulating education material is a basic safety measure experts have recommended since the 1990s; the Boy Scouts of America started doing it in 1986.
As Olympic officials discussed their handbook in 2011, however, several mentioned a common concern: that the handbook could get them sued by victims, who would use it as evidence that Olympic officials knew abuse was a problem but weren’t doing enough to stop it.
“While several NGBs expressed that the handbook sets the proper focus . . . there is also a perception that publishing the handbook will increase their risk of legal liability,” Malia Arrington, a USOC executive in charge of abuse prevention, wrote Blackmun in a December 2011 memo made public by the USOC this year in communication with the Senate.
Child protection experts expressed bewilderment that, in 2011, organizations working with children would debate the legal risks associated with abuse prevention material.
“Litigation happens all the time. Anybody can sue anyone for anything. That’s a fact of life,” said Stephen Forrester, an attorney and director at the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Lawyers also have stepped in when Olympic officials have tried to act swiftly to prevent coaches suspected of abuse from working with children. In 2014, a USA Taekwondo disciplinary panel recommended an immediate lifetime ban of Las Vegas coach Marc Gitelman after three women came forward accusing Gitelman of abuse.
USA Taekwondo leaders ignored the recommendation after the organization’s lawyer, Stephen Hess of Colorado Springs, raised the concern Gitelman might sue, in part, because the hearing panel didn’t allow him to cross-examine his accusers, violating his due-process rights under the Ted Stevens Act.
Hess declined to comment. USA Taekwondo banned Gitelman in 2015 after he was convicted of three sex crimes in California, in connection with the same allegations.
“I think that NGBs in general are plagued by weak governance by the boards, and that is a field day for lawyers,” said Don Parker, a financial services executive in Oklahoma City who was part of the USA Taekwondo panel that tried to ban the coach. “The lawyers have too much sway . . . and the legal risk opinion is too heavily weighted.”
Nancy Hogshead-Makar — a three-time gold medal Olympic swimmer, civil rights attorney and advocate for stronger abuse prevention in Olympic sports — blames one firm in particular for this fear of legal risk: Bryan Cave, an international firm whose Colorado Springs office has made its attorneys the most influential legal minds in American Olympic sports.
At one time or another, Bryan Cave has represented 27 of the 47 Olympic NGBs, and it also serves as outside counsel to the USOC. Blackmun, the USOC CEO, is a former partner at the firm. Bryan Cave partner Rich Young helped write the World Anti-Doping Code, the rules that police drug cheating in Olympic sports globally.
In an interview in the firm’s Colorado Springs office last December, Young declined to answer questions about specific cases and said he and his colleagues have led the way in the effort to make Olympic sports organizations safer for children.
“Over the years, the lion’s share of our time representing NGBs in this area has been prosecuting abusers . . . and in drafting rules to help protect athletes,” Young said.
Hogshead-Makar and other victims’ advocates remain critical of the firm, arguing Young and Bryan Cave defended USA Swimming policies and decisions that left children at risk — such as a confidential settlement with a former national team coach who admitted to having sex with a 14-year-old, and a confidential list of coaches banned for sexual misconduct — that didn’t change until after critical news coverage in 2010.
Similar to USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming also had a long-running policy of requiring written complaints from victims or witnesses of abuse before it investigated. Because most victims never come forward, experts say, policies that dismiss suspicions as “hearsay” inherently allow predators to get away.
“The problem with the USOC and USA Swimming and a lot of these other NGBs is they get their legal advice from Bryan Cave,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Their eye is all on legal liability, as opposed to what would make it safest for kids.”
Praesidium, a Texas company that creates sex abuse prevention policies for youth-serving organizations, consulted with USA Gymnastics this year as it reformed its policies, and it previously performed the same services for USA Swimming. In a phone interview, Praesidium founder Richard Dangel declined to discuss his work with the lawyers for either Olympic organization but said he believes a fear of lawsuits by youth-serving organizations, in general, is overblown.
“What we tell an organization is, if you always keep the needs of the kid first, you’re going to be much better off in a lawsuit saying, ‘We felt the kid was at risk,’ ” Dangel said. “My way is the right way, but it might not be the most comfortable way for some lawyers.”
What will change?
In March, after more than a year of delays, the U.S. Center for SafeSport opened in Denver. The nonprofit is supposed to operate as a rough equivalent of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which polices drug cheating in Olympic sports. The Center for SafeSport is tasked with disciplinary investigations of abuse and will also regularly evaluate safety policies at Olympic organizations.
The delays, the USOC has said, were caused by difficulties raising money, and it’s unclear whether the amount raised so far — about $25 million for the next five years — will be enough for the potential workload.
The Center for SafeSport has responsibilities similar to a college Title IX office, which investigates gender discrimination crimes on campus. As a comparison, the University of Maryland’s Title IX office has a full-time staff of seven to cover a population of about 50,000 students and faculty who live mostly on campus or nearby. The Center for SafeSport has a full-time staff of nine and four contract investigators to cover a population of at least 13 million athletes, coaches and officials spread across the country.
The Center for SafeSport can act only when it gets a report. The front lines of abuse prevention, USOC officials acknowledge, will remain the hundreds of thousands of local clubs and coaches affiliated with Olympic organizations, and the officials who oversee those sports communities.
In late March, Timothy Nguyen, a 25-year-old coach at Quicksilver, a USA Swimming-affiliated club in San Jose, quit after an underage swimmer told the club’s head coach that Nguyen had sent her suggestive messages through social media. The head coach informed USA Swimming officials, but no one told law enforcement.
Two months later, on May 30, Elizabeth Hoendervoogt, a USA Swimming official and abuse prevention specialist, called San Jose police to report Nguyen and send over messages the coach had exchanged with three swimmers, all aged 14 to 16.
In one exchange, police allege, Nguyen asked a girl if she’d been sexually active yet, discussed the specifics of several sex acts and then suggested they could be “friends with benefits.” In another, police say, Nguyen asked a girl for nude photos. One girl told police she had improved as a swimmer under Nguyen, and she had been concerned he would stop coaching her if she didn’t respond.
In late June, police arrested Nguyen. Then they learned Quicksilver’s head coach and USA Swimming officials had known about some of Nguyen’s behavior in March. In California, coaches are mandatory reporters and must inform authorities within 36 hours of learning of suspected sex crimes involving children.
In a phone interview, prosecutors said they considered charging Nguyen’s former boss at the club with failing to report.
“We’re glad [Hoendervoogt] reported. We wished that she had reported earlier,” said Pinaki Chakravorty, a deputy district attorney in San Jose.
USA Swimming spokesman Matthew Farrell said it took two months for the Olympic sports organization to report Nguyen to police because it took time to collect the text messages. When asked whether USA Swimming or the club should have handled the report differently, Farrell replied: “I’m not aware of any substantive changes that USA Swimming or the club would make.”