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Lawsuit accuses USOC, USA Taekwondo of sex trafficking by not acting on complaints

Jean Lopez has coached USA Taekwondo in the past four Olympics. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

Four former elite female taekwondo athletes have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the United States Olympic Committee and USA Taekwondo of engaging in sex trafficking by forcing them to compete alongside Jean and Steven Lopez, brothers once regarded as among the most respected figures in their sport now at the center of another sex abuse scandal roiling Olympic organizations.

In the lawsuit, filed Friday in federal court in Denver, the four women accused Jean Lopez, 44, the longtime Olympic taekwondo coach, and his brother Steven, 39, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport’s history, of using their power and influence to coerce them into sex acts. Officials at the USOC and USA Taekwondo were made aware of the Lopez brothers’ behavior as early as 2006, the lawsuit alleges, but officials didn’t act until after the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, where Jean Lopez coached and Steven Lopez competed.

Jean and Steven Lopez have not been charged with a crime in connection with the allegations. Neither responded to phone calls and emails seeking comment Monday. In April, the U.S Center for SafeSport, which conducts disciplinary investigations of allegations of sex abuse in Olympic sports organizations in the U.S., banned Jean Lopez for life from associating with Olympic organizations for an incident of sexual misconduct involving a minor, according to the organization’s website. According to the lawsuit, the Center for SafeSport’s written opinion justifying the ban asserted “a decades long pattern of sexual misconduct [by Jean Lopez] . . . abusing his power to groom, manipulate, and ultimately, sexually abuse younger female athletes.”

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Steven Lopez is under investigation by the Center for SafeSport for an allegation of sexual misconduct dating from June 2017, the organization’s website shows. The Center for SafeSport does not release details of allegations, and renders decisions based on a lower bar of evidence than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of criminal courts.

In a statement, USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky did not address the allegations raised in the lawsuit.

“The USOC is deeply focused on supporting, protecting and empowering the athletes we serve,” Sandusky wrote. “We are aggressively exploring and implementing new ways to enhance athlete safety, and prevent and respond to abuse.”

USA Taekwondo executive director Steve McNally, in a statement, wrote that the organization is reviewing the lawsuit, and declined to comment further.

Jean and Steven are the eldest siblings of America’s “first family of taekwondo,” as they are known in their sport. Jean Lopez has coached Team USA at the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics, as well as at many other international competitions, while Steven Lopez is a five-time Olympian with two gold medals and five world titles.

The allegations against the Lopez brothers date from June 1997, when former Team USA athlete Mandy Meloon alleges Jean Lopez assaulted her one night after a competition in Cairo, Egypt. Meloon, who was 15 at the time, alleges that Jean Lopez entered her hotel room, climbed into bed with her, and she pretended to sleep while he digitally penetrated her vagina for several minutes.

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In 2006, the lawsuit alleges, Meloon informed two USOC officials and the former chief executive of USA Taekwondo of the 1997 incident, among other complaints about his behavior, but the officials dismissed her allegations.

Meloon, who later dated Steven Lopez, accused him of beating her and raping her twice, once in 2004 and again in 2005. It does not appear she ever filed complaints with law enforcement in connection with these allegations.

“As a condition of representing the United States on the U.S. Olympic team, the USOC forced athletes to participate in competitions, giving predator coaches like Jean Lopez and athletes like Steve Lopez an opportunity to sexual assault these young females,” said Indianapolis attorney Jon Little, who is representing Meloon and the others, in a statement.

Another former Team USA athlete, Heidi Gilbert, accused Jean Lopez of drugging her drink at a party after a 2003 competition in Germany, and of sexually assaulting her later that night. Gilbert reported the incident in 2015 to USA Taekwondo, the lawsuit states, but an investigation was put on hold during the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. The lawsuit alleges Gilbert and Meloon’s allegations ultimately were validated by the SafeSport decision to ban Jean Lopez.

In a statement issued last month, after the SafeSport decision, Jean Lopez denied the allegations made by Meloon and Gilbert.

“It is an absolute fact that these claims against me are not true,” he said.