COLORADO SPRINGS — The documents describing a coach’s sexual abuse of three aspiring Olympic athletes circulated through U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters in early 2014.
It started in a hotel room in 2010, Yasmin Brown wrote. She was 16 and her taekwondo coach — Marc Gitelman, or “Master G” — was 44. Gitelman provided alcohol and suggested a game.
A few minutes later, Brown collapsed on the bed. She felt his hand lift her shorts, then his lips on her thigh.
Over the next three years, Brown wrote, her coach forced her to have sex dozens of times: at hotels before tournaments, at his studio, in his car. Brown’s letter was part of a packet that included letters from two other women alleging abuse by Gitelman, and a police report.
Brown tried to get USA Taekwondo — the Olympic national governing body for the sport — to ban Gitelman from coaching, restricting his access to young athletes. USA Taekwondo officials believed her, court records show, but didn’t ban Gitelman out of fear of a lawsuit. So Brown asked the USOC for help.
“This sounds like the same old BS. . . . Allowing a potential sexual predator to continue to coach without having an appropriate investigation and conclusion is unacceptable,” USOC board member Susanne Lyons wrote in an email dated March 10, 2014. Lyons then forwarded the documents to three USOC executives, including chief executive Scott Blackmun.
“Hopefully USOC staff can assist in some way, at least to protect the girls involved,” Lyons wrote.
But in the following months, the USOC did not intercede to protect the girls, documents show. While the organization entrusted by federal law to oversee Olympic sports in America stood idle, Gitelman continued to coach alongside Brown and other children for more than a year. In September 2015, Gitelman was convicted of sexually abusing Brown and one other girl. Two days later, USA Taekwondo banned him from coaching.
A Washington Post examination of the case, based on a review of thousands of pages of documents produced from a lawsuit filed by Gitelman’s victims against the USOC and USA Taekwondo, offers a rare look at how America’s most powerful and wealthy Olympic sports organization responded when a victim asked for help.
To people who work with abuse victims in sports, Brown’s story contains elements that are sadly common: an attempt to keep children safe thwarted by a fear of getting sued; USOC officials unwilling to intervene because of a strict interpretation of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act; and a victim ultimately left to fend for herself in an insular community that vilified her for accusing a respected coach.
In an interview from prison, Gitelman maintained his innocence and said any sex he had with his athletes happened after they turned 18. USA Taekwondo officials declined interview requests for this story, as did USOC CEO Blackmun, who sent a written statement.
“Sexual abuse is a terrible and unfortunate reality,” Blackmun wrote. “The USOC has been a leader in the development and implementation of programs that seek to protect young athletes from abuse. We have invested millions of dollars, created a new independent agency and mandated policies and programs for the national governing bodies that we oversee. The prevention of sexual abuse has been, and will continue to be, a high priority for us.”
In 2014, Blackmun publicly acknowledged the need for an independent entity to investigate allegations of abuse in Olympic sports, because Olympic governing bodies often lack the money or expertise to properly handle the cases.
Originally scheduled to open in 2015, the U.S. Center for SafeSport is now slated to open by April. The USOC, which averages $230 million in annual revenue, is contributing $8.3 million over five years and has attributed delays to difficulty raising another $16.7 million needed.
This lag is the latest public sign of USOC leadership’s historic reluctance to use the organization’s stature and resources to address sex abuse in Olympic sports, according to victims and their advocates.
While it has advised Olympic governing bodies on athlete training and fundraising since the late 1970s, the USOC didn’t start recommending basic child protection measures such as background checks or abuse education until 2012, nearly 20 years after these policies first became common and more than a decade after national sport organizations in other countries started addressing abuse prevention.
“The USOC has been very, very slow to tackle this,” said Donna Lopiano, former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation. “It’s like pulling teeth to get them to make a move. They have to be so inundated with public criticism or lawsuits that they can’t ignore it.”
Under the USOC’s watch, six Olympic sport governing bodies have been beset over the years by allegations of mishandled complaints of abuse; most recently USA Gymnastics, whose former longtime physician Larry Nassar was arrested in November and charged with three counts of sexual abuse of a child. USA Gymnastics faces multiple lawsuits by alleged victims of Nassar, and also has been sued in Georgia by an abuse victim whose lawyers have produced evidence USA Gymnastics officials failed to notify law enforcement of complaints of a sexual nature against a local coach who went onto abuse other children. These cases were first reported by the Indianapolis Star.
Sex abuse was a well-known problem in Olympic sports for decades before the USOC first required preventative measures in 2014. Gitelman is one of more than 150 coaches and officials associated with Olympic sport governing bodies convicted of sex crimes since the early 1980s, according to a review of coach ban lists, court records and news clips. That figure, while a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of adults who have worked with children in Olympic sports, likely undercounts actual abusive coaches, as research shows most are never caught.
The Post does not normally name the victims of sex abuse, but Brown, now 23, agreed to discuss her case, while declining to be photographed for this story.
“I felt really helpless. . . . Someone was putting athletes in danger, and no one cared,” Brown said. “I felt like I had no options, other than to quit and disappear.”
Born in suburban Los Angeles in 1994, Brown moved often as a child, struggling to maintain friendships as she shuttled between separated parents in California and Nevada. She found solace in taekwondo.
Inspired to learn a martial art by the Disney film “Mulan,” Brown took her first lesson at 6. Short and slender, Brown doesn’t look like a natural fighter, but she’s agile, able to swiftly snap off flurries of kicks. She earned her first black belt at 9 and began nurturing hopes of making Team USA.
When Brown moved to live with her father in Las Vegas in January 2010, she said, she consulted USA Taekwondo’s website to find a new coach. Only one coach in Nevada had completed USA Taekwondo’s Level 2 coaching class, the highest designation the Olympic organization offered: Marc Gitelman.
Then 44, Gitelman — or “Master G,” as his students called him — maintained a unique hairstyle one girl later described to police as “Justin Bieber bangs and a Billy Ray Cyrus mullet that he wears in a ponytail.” In the close-knit local taekwondo community, Gitelman was a well-respected fixture who had coached and competed internationally.
Almost immediately after he started teaching her, Brown said, Gitelman began talking to the 16-year-old about his sex life. She said he complained his wife didn’t satisfy him in bed and asked her about her experience. In May 2010, they had their first travel tournament, the International Taekwondo Festival in Industry, Calif.
The night they arrived, Gitelman invited Brown and two other female athletes — one was 15, the other 23 — to his room. Gitelman passed around spiked juice drinks and suggested they play a dice game called “left, right, center,” with shots after each round.
Brown, who had never drunk alcohol before, lay down on the bed after a few rounds. Through her drunken haze, she felt her coach touching her, she later testified, and then the other girls took her to bed.
For Brown, that weekend marked the beginning of three years of late-night visits to her coach’s hotel room. Gitelman would invite her over to talk strategy, or treat an injury, before progressing to sex. In 2011, when they stayed at the USOC’s Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for a tournament, Brown hurt her shoulder, and Gitelman invited her to his room for treatment, which led to sex.
Brown experienced conflicted feelings common to abuse victims. Sometimes she thought she was in love; sometimes she thought she was trapped. In March 2013, as Brown helped close up Gitelman’s studio, she saw a young woman waiting outside, holding a letter.
The woman had been Gitelman’s top athlete before Brown. Now 21, the woman had come to a realization.
“Master G,” read the letter, which later became evidence in Brown’s lawsuit. “At the time, I didn’t know what you were doing to me was sexual abuse. I craved your attention, and I wanted to please you. . . . Sex in exchange for becoming a world-class athlete seemed like a fair trade.”
Unnerved by this woman’s similar story, Brown broke off contact with Gitelman. A few months later, another former Gitelman student told Brown that the coach coerced her into sex when she was 15.
Concerned Gitelman would move on to another student, Brown wrote a Facebook post in the summer of 2013, warning Gitelman’s students and their parents about the coach. A few months later, Brown and the two other victims approached Las Vegas police. Then, Brown contacted USA Taekwondo, hoping the Olympic body would ban Gitelman from coaching while police investigated.
In January 2014, a USA Taekwondo ethics panel heard the case. Brown presented signed statements from the other victims, and from two witnesses who said Gitelman admitted to playing drinking games and having sex with the girls.
Parent Jeff King — whose child was not a victim of Gitelman — wrote, “Master Gitelman said in his exact words — ‘I know I should have ran the other direction and should not have been involved in the game but I am only a man and got caught up in the moment.’ ”
After Brown accused him of abuse on Facebook, Gitelman held a meeting at his studio in which he told parents that his relationship with Brown was consensual, King wrote. The age of consent in Nevada is 16, Gitelman told parents. Then King asked about California, where some of the acts occurred and where the age of consent is 18.
“Master Gitelman’s [demeanor] changed to be nervous and scared. . . . He said – ‘I didn’t even think about that!’ ” King wrote in a statement to the ethics panel.
In the hearing, Gitelman and his lawyer claimed sex with Brown was consensual and happened after she turned 18.
“This is simply an issue of revenge over a petty young lady who broke up with her boyfriend,” Gitelman’s lawyer said.
At one point, Gitelman’s lawyer asked to cross-examine Brown. Don Parker, a USA Taekwondo volunteer running the panel, said there would be no cross-examinations, out of concern it would traumatize Brown. Gitelman’s lawyer threatened to sue USA Taekwondo if the panel banned Gitelman, which would severely hurt his ability to recruit new students.
Undeterred by the threat, the ethics panel voted 3-0 to ban Gitelman indefinitely. But then USA Taekwondo lawyer Stephen Hess got involved.
After listening to a recording of the hearing, Hess emailed several USA Taekwondo officials that he was concerned about the threat of a lawsuit. Under the Ted Stevens Act, Hess wrote, Gitelman’s lawyer should have been able to cross examine Brown. Hess recommended that the panel re-do the hearing.
Parker seethed at the decision, later describing it as “a cowardly action.”
“If you’re going to protect athletes from harm, you can’t do it while taking zero organizational risk,” Parker said.
Unwilling to put herself through another hearing, a distraught Brown consulted a lawyer. In the meantime, she had to keep facing Gitelman at USA Taekwondo events.
At one tournament in February 2014, Brown asked for her mother to accompany her into the athlete area. Tournament officials said no, Brown said, because her mother wasn’t a USA Taekwondo coach.
The situation drew the attention of former USA Taekwondo board member Ronda Sweet. In March 2014, Sweet emailed the evidence against Gitelman to several USOC officials, including Director of Ethics and SafeSport Malia Arrington, whose job CEO Blackmun created in 2011 after an abuse scandal rocked USA Swimming.
“I thought the idea was to protect these kids, not their abusers,” Sweet wrote. “Can USOC do something? This man is a predator.”
In a deposition, Arrington testified that she believed Brown had provided more than enough evidence for USA Taekwondo to ban Gitelman — but Arrington didn’t urge USA Taekwondo to act.
“I have no authority to do that,” she said. “It goes back to the Ted Stevens Act.”
Passed by Congress in 1978 and named for the late Alaska senator, the Ted Stevens Act installed the USOC at the top of a sporting pyramid that includes 47 Olympic sport governing bodies — organizations such as USA Swimming, USA Gymnastics and USA Taekwondo. These governing bodies have built a domestic talent pipeline that includes tens of thousands of local coaches across the country, and about 8 million children, according to governing body estimates.
The Ted Stevens Act — and how lawyers have interpreted it — has played a central role in the USOC’s historic inaction on child protection, according to Lopiano, who researched the issue for a 2015 book, “Safeguarding, Child Protection and Abuse in Sport.”
Written during an era in which Olympic executives could banish athletes for arbitrary reasons, the Ted Stevens Act requires sport governing bodies to provide fair notice, a hearing and due process to any coach, athlete or official it wants to ban, and contains no mandate that Olympic governing bodies protect children in their ranks from harm.
The law gave the USOC wide-ranging responsibilities, such as promoting racial equality, gender equality and “sports safety.” USOC leadership historically has taken a focused view of its mission, though.
“For us, it’s all about medals,” CEO Blackmun said in 2014. “How do we help American athletes get medals put around their necks? We have a line of sight between every decision we make and the impact on how many Americans will win medals.”
Blackmun’s remarks reflect a long-running institutional philosophy at the USOC, Lopiano said.
“The USOC doesn’t see itself as very broad in scope,” Lopiano said. “Rather than think broadly and act like a ministry of sport, the USOC has decided to narrow its scope, strategically, to elite athletes and winning gold medals.”
As sex abuse scandals have roiled institutions ranging from the Boy Scouts of America to the Roman Catholic Church, child protection experts have recommended measures including background checks, education programs and investigation policies — similar to how America’s colleges handle sexual assault on campus. These policies first became common in the mid-1990s.
In 1998, Canadian sports ministry officials launched a sexual harassment and abuse education program. In 2001, Denmark’s Olympic committee started recommending background checks. In 2002, Britain’s sports ministry required sport organizations to implement child protection measures.
The USOC first recommended basic child protection policies in 2012, and required them in 2014. Before the USOC mandate, many Olympic governing bodies lagged behind other youth-serving organizations on child protection policies. USA Swimming was one of the first to require background checks — in 2006. USA Taekwondo didn’t start abuse education until 2014.
In a phone interview from prison in November, Gitelman said no one ever told him in his two decades as a coaching member of an Olympic sport organization that it was an abuse of power to have sex with his athletes.
“I do not recall that ever being said by anybody in any way, shape or form,” Gitelman said. “Why would somebody tell you that you can’t date somebody, if it’s a consensual relationship?”
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time gold medalist Olympic swimmer, civil rights attorney and women’s rights advocate, said the Ted Stevens Act is the common thread linking abuse scandals in Olympic swimming, gymnastics, speedskating and other sports.
To explain what she perceives as flaws in the Ted Stevens Act, Hogshead-Makar compares the law to Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to keep students safe from sexual harassment or abuse.
If Brown had been a college student coming forward with an allegation of rape against another student, with the evidence she had collected, according to Hogshead-Makar, Title IX would have required the school to immediately investigate and adjudicate the claim, then take measures to keep Brown safe from Gitelman. Cross-examinations probably wouldn’t have been an issue, as the Department of Education “strongly discourages” schools from allowing them in Title IX sexual assault hearings, out of concern for traumatizing victims.
The Ted Stevens Act also guarantees each sport governing body “autonomy,” which USOC officials cited in explaining why they couldn’t force USA Taekwondo to ban Gitelman. The USOC cannot discipline coaches or athletes, Arrington testified; that is the sport governing bodies’ domain.
But victim’s advocates note that USOC officials have attempted to discipline athletes or coaches on occasions — when a situation is creating poor public relations.
In 1994, the USOC attempted to prevent figure skater Tonya Harding from making Team USA, when she was suspected of involvement in an attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. In 2008, a USOC spokesman said it would investigate allegations of sex abuse against a USA Judo board member after the story generated national news coverage. During last summer’s Olympics, the USOC swiftly punished swimmer Ryan Lochte and three others for actions at a gas station in Rio de Janeiro.
“There’s only one lever that seems to be successful . . . and that’s bad public relations, and that puts victims and their advocates in a terrible position,” Hogshead-Makar said. “You don’t want to have to create bad PR for the Olympic Committee to get action.”
Gitelman brought two victims, including Brown, to the USOC training center in Colorado Springs. Both testified he invited them to his dorm at night for sex.
Other organizations battered by abuse scandals, such as the Boy Scouts, require “two-deep” leadership on all travel events, limiting the opportunities for predators to be alone with children. The USOC recommends — but does not require — two-deep leadership for coaches bringing underage athletes to its training sites.
When asked by Brown’s lawyer about policies preventing sex abuse at USOC training centers, two USOC officials testified that the safety of athletes on USOC property is ultimately up to national governing bodies or coaches who bring athletes there.
“We always expect the NGBs [national governing bodies] to — or whoever is sort of, you know, holding a camp there, whoever it is, to sort of monitor their situations,” said Arrington, the SafeSport director.
USOC associate general counsel Gary Johansen was also among the officials who received Brown’s email asking for help in March 2014. In a deposition, Johansen said the USOC was not responsible for keeping aspiring Olympic athletes safe from abuse.
“You want to protect your athletes from being sexually abused. That’s a top priority, right, sir?,” asked Stephen Estey, Brown’s lawyer.
“The USOC does not have athletes,” Johansen replied.
“Walk me through that,” Estey said. “You send athletes to the Olympics, but they’re not your athletes?”
“Why is it they’re not your athletes?”
“They’re nominated by the National Governing Bodies to the USOC.”
When asked what Team USA refers to, if not athletes, Johansen replied: “That’s a branding terminology. . . . It’s intellectual property.”
On Sept. 8, 2015, a jury in suburban Los Angeles found Gitelman guilty of oral copulation of a person under 18, unlawful sexual intercourse and lewd act upon a child for his actions with Brown and another girl. Gitelman — who maintains that he never had sex with Brown before she turned 18 and that the other victim lied — was sentenced to serve four years and four months, and will have to register as a sex offender when he’s released.
When Brown decided to go to police about her abuse, she became a pariah in the Las Vegas taekwondo community. At tournaments, Gitelman’s other students, and their parents, cheered against Brown, she said. At the trial, parents testified in support of Gitelman.
Gitelman’s conviction has not delivered vindication for Brown. When she opened her own taekwondo studio last year, Gitelman supporters wrote critical reviews of it on Facebook and Yelp, screen grabs show, with one review warning potential customers that Brown might try to “get with your husband.”
One of the parents who testified on Gitelman’s behalf said in a recent phone interview that she was still upset her daughter lost her coach because of Brown.
“When we found out he’d been dating one of his athletes, I thought, ick. . . . He made some bad decisions. But he didn’t deserve to go to jail,” said April Thompson, 59, a Las Vegas-area substitute teacher.
In November, a California judge dismissed both the USOC and USA Taekwondo as defendants in the lawsuit filed by Brown and two other victims, with a ruling neither organization was liable for Gitelman as he was not employed by either organization. Brown’s case continues against Gitelman, and her lawyer is appealing.
Brown, now 23, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and said she has experienced bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts. She still tries to compete but is often stricken at tournaments by panic attacks or intense nausea, she said.
In the office of her studio, Brown has decorated the walls with mementos of her coaching career. Notes from her students cover one wall: a coloring of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and a jagged, scrawled note from a 5-year-old, “I want to go to taekwondo forever, love Faris.”
On the wall near her desk, Brown hung a sign that used to decorate her bedroom, back when she dreamed of competing in last summer’s Rio Games.
It’s a small red, white, and blue pennant, with five familiar interlocking rings, the American flag and, in big, block letters, “TEAM USA.”