Two U.S. senators are demanding answers from United States Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun about his agency’s handling of allegations of sex abuse committed by coaches and officials associated with Olympic sport national governing bodies.
In a letter sent Thursday afternoon to Blackmun, Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said a recent Washington Post story about three aspiring Olympic athletes abused by their USA Taekwondo coach, as well as abuse scandals that have roiled Olympic governing bodies including USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, and U.S. Speedskating raised “serious concerns about the extent to which the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is meeting its mandate to protect the health and safety of athletes.”
Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo., the USOC is entrusted by federal law with overseeing the 47 national governing bodies, or NGBs, that subsequently oversee each individual Olympic sport in America. As a fundraising mechanism, and as a method of creating a domestic talent pipeline, many of these NGBs credential local coaches and officials across the country to work with young athletes. More than 8 million children fall under this umbrella of Olympic sports organizations, according to NGB estimates.
The Feb. 14 Post story detailed aspiring Olympic taekwondo athlete Yasmin Brown’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt in 2014 to get the USOC to ban her coach, Marc Gitelman, from USA Taekwondo events while he was under criminal investigation for abusing her and two other girls. Gitelman, then in his 40s, coerced Brown into sex dozens of times over three years, Brown alleged, starting when she was 16. The coach repeatedly plied her with alcohol, Brown said, and on one occasion abused her in the dormitories at the USOC’s Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Brown presented USA Taekwondo officials with evidence that included signed statements from the other alleged victims and two witnesses, but USA Taekwondo didn’t act swiftly out of concern Gitelman would sue, according to testimony offered in a lawsuit Brown filed against the USOC and USA Taekwondo. Gitelman was eventually convicted in September 2015 of three sex crimes connected to Brown’s allegations, and USA Taekwondo banned him two days after his conviction. A judge dismissed Brown’s suit against the Olympic organizations, ruling they were not responsible for Gitelman, in part, because he was not employed by them.
Blackmun, who declined multiple requests for an interview for the Feb. 14 report, was unavailable to comment Thursday evening.
In a statement, USOC Chief External Affairs Office Patrick Sandusky wrote: “We are grateful for the opportunity to provide the senators and the public with additional information about our continued efforts to provide safe opportunities for children to participate in sports. The Washington Post story does not fairly describe our actions or our point of view, and contains inaccuracies. By way of example, Mr. Gitelman was suspended within one month after the initial filing, not ‘more than a year’ later as the Washington Post suggests.”
Sandusky’s statement refers to a temporary suspension USA Taekwondo officials levied against Gitelman in late 2013, apparently without informing local officials in Nevada. Gitelman continued to coach alongside young athletes at USA Taekwondo events, including his victim Brown, on multiple occasions in 2014, which is why Brown emailed USOC officials asking for assistance. USA Taekwondo’s official suspension list gives Gitelman’s date of suspension as Sept. 10, 2015, two days after his conviction.
This is the second time in less than a month that a Senator has raised concerns about sex abuse in Olympic sports, which again has burst into the news as more than 60 women, including three former Olympic gymnasts, have accused longtime Team USA gymnastics physician Larry Nassar of sexually assaulting them during routine examinations. Nassar, who has been charged with more than 20 felonies in Michigan while authorities in several states continue to investigate, has denied the allegations.
Spurred by Indianapolis Star stories alleging mishandled allegations of abuse by USA Gymnastics and the Nassar case, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced Feb. 22 she was crafting legislation to amend the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, the federal law that governs the USOC and Olympic governing bodies. The law has played a recurring role in abuse scandals in Olympic sports, as lawyers have interpreted it to afford coaches suspected of abuse the right to fair notice, a hearing, and due process including the right to cross-examine an accuser — rights that other youth-serving organizations do not grant before barring those suspected of abuse from working with children.
In depositions taken in Brown’s lawsuit, USOC officials cited the Ted Stevens Act in explaining why they did not urge USA Taekwondo officials to immediately ban Gitelman even after reviewing the evidence Brown collected. The law gives Olympic governing bodies such as USA Taekwondo autonomy over discipline matters, officials testified, which meant the USOC had no jurisdiction.
Thune is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees sports, and Moran is a fellow committee member. In their letter, they requested a legal analysis explaining why the USOC believes the Ted Stevens Act prevents it from barring coaches accused of abuse, and asked Blackmun if the USOC supports updates to the law. The Senators also asked Blackmun to explain the lengthy delays in the scheduled opening of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent entity that is supposed to investigate abuse allegations in Olympic sports, similar to how the U.S. Anti-Doping agency polices drug cheating.
In 2014, Blackmun acknowledged the need for an organization such as the Center for SafeSport, because Olympic governing bodies often lack the money or expertise to handle abuse allegations properly. Originally scheduled to begin operations in 2015, the Center for SafeSport is scheduled to open by April. USOC officials have cited fundraising difficulty in explaining the delays. When it is operational, the Center for SafeSport is supposed to have jurisdiction over these cases, USOC officials have said, preventing a situation such as Brown’s case from occurring again.