The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

USOC can’t just look ahead to better sex abuse prevention. It must face its failures.

With former USOC CEO Scott Blackmun looking on, chairman Larry Probstspeaks during a USOC leadership news conference in Rio.
With former USOC CEO Scott Blackmun looking on, chairman Larry Probstspeaks during a USOC leadership news conference in Rio. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images)

Sally Jenkins

Presumably, the leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee don’t wake up in the morning saying, “I want to enable child molesters.” They don’t go to work every day intending to help peddle young women to sexual abusers. Yet somehow, the USOC became a victimizer of athletes instead of their protector.

It’s hard to say what’s more sickening to read, the graphic descriptions of coaches rubbing up against their young charges or the chronology of years-long inaction by USOC administrators that left athletes vulnerable. Both are described in a lawsuit filed this week alleging the USOC acted as a “travel agent and commercial funder in the domestic and international sexual exploitation of young female athletes,” by failing to act against former U.S. Olympic taekwondo coach Jean Lopez and his gold medalist brother, Steve.

The lawsuit should be read carefully by members of Congress, who are prepping to interview Olympic officials May 23 about how an epidemic of sex abuse has flourished across multiple sports. It contains a vital timeline and vivid blueprint of the USOC’s appallingly evasive standard operating procedures, and purposeful liability-dodging, and lip-service sanctimony. You know when the USOC received the first complaint about the Lopez brothers messing with a young girl? In 2006. Only last month did the USOC’s newly established Center for SafeSport ban Jean Lopez for life for sexual misconduct with a minor, a decision he is appealing. Only this week did USA Taekwondo declare Steve Lopez temporarily suspended while it investigates him for similar alleged misconduct.

Twelve years ago. That’s when Mandy Meloon, one of four plaintiffs, first handed a written complaint against the Lopez brothers to officials at the USOC and USA Taekwondo. Yet last month USOC board Chairman Larry Probst unctuously urged SafeSport to “move faster” in addressing sex abuse complaints. He has his nerve.

Every six weeks for more than 36 years: When will sex abuse in Olympic sports end?

Among those who became aware of the Lopez case over the ensuing years, the lawsuit alleges, were USOC in-house counsels Gary Johansen and Rick Adams, head of sports performance Meredith Miller, board member Susanne Lyons, board member Devin Johnson and director of ethics Malia Arrington. That’s two lawyers, two board members, the head of performance and the organization’s ethicist. What happened?

Nothing. For more than a decade. “I’ve literally been working on this case for 10 years,” plaintiff’s attorney Jon Little said.

Asked about the USOC’s paralysis in the Lopez case, spokesman Patrick Sandusky replied with a statement: “We do not normally comment on active litigation. In this case though, counsel’s fantastical claims seem calculated to provoke and offend rather than to genuinely seek relief from the judicial system. Although we have only just received this complaint, it appears to be a cynical attempt by counsel to subvert important protective laws with the goal of sensationalizing this case. The USOC will vigorously defend itself against these outrageous claims. We want to be clear, however, that our criticism does not extend to the athletes whose names appear in this case. The USOC remains focused on supporting, protecting and empowering the athletes we serve.”

The USOC’s strategy is to point forward and refuse to look back. Congress shouldn’t fall for it. When you have a catastrophic systemic failure, you don’t just turn your back to the problem; you examine the source of the nuclear meltdown so you can stop the toxic poison leak. And the source of this systemic failure lies at the very top, in the offices of directors and general counsels.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee Oversight and Investigations subcommittee has called five officials including interim CEO Lyons to testify May 23, but they are aiming too low. They should summon Probst, the board chairman, and ask, “Why should we not demand your resignation on the spot?” Probst must explain and account for the USOC’s failures over his tenure, which began in 2008. He is the head of this racket. How is it that when young athletes found the incredible courage to report abuse, they were met with inertia if not obstruction at the highest levels?

An athlete accused her coach of sex abuse. Olympic officials stayed on the sideline.

Example: In 2013, three other female taekwondo athletes notified the USOC they had been sexually abused by a coach, Marc Gitelman. They even included a police report in their pleas for help. On this occasion, the complaint reached Lyons, who to her everlasting credit tried to intervene — the only instance in hundreds of pages of court documents I’ve read in which a USOC official was proactive. Lyons wrote a heated email to three other USOC execs, including then-CEO Scott Blackmun.

“This sounds like the same old BS . . . ,” she wrote. “Allowing a potential sexual predator to continue to coach without having an appropriate investigation and conclusion is unacceptable.”

In another email she wrote, “Hopefully USOC staff can assist in some way . . . .”

What happened? Nothing. Gitelman continued to coach until he was criminally convicted in 2015 for lewd conduct with a child, while his victims had to go to competitions with him. They sued. Asked in a deposition how such a thing could have happened, Arrington, the ethics officer, replied, “The USOC does not have the authority to do anything.”

Asked which portion of the USOC’s congressional charter forbids the USOC from acting against a child molester, she responded, “I don’t know.”

This is how USOC officials hid behind their massive, overpaid bureaucracy: by making disingenuous excuses about their powers, obfuscating and playing dumb. If it was one case in one sport, you could understand it. But listen to Lyons: “The same old BS.” It’s an incredibly telling statement. They had heard it all before, innumerable times.

They heard it in swimming, which in 2010 was rocked by revelations that 36 coaches had been secretly punished for sexual abuse. The late Chuck Wielgus, who then headed USA Swimming, admitted under oath he knew of a secret child abuse settlement made by Hall of Fame coach Rick Curl in 1989. Yet Curl was still credentialed as a VIP on the pool deck at the 2012 Olympic trials.

They heard it in speedskating. In March 2013, speedskater Bridie Farrell personally told Blackmun of her abuse as a girl by former skater Andy Gabel and urged him to punish Gabel. According to Farrell, Blackmun said there was nothing he could do.

And they heard it in gymnastics. In 1999, former USA Gymnastics chief executive Bob Colarossi warned Blackmun, then the USOC’s general counsel, that the Olympic movement was asking for a massive sex abuse scandal. It arrived in July 2015 when three gymnasts reported they were serially molested by Olympic doctor Larry Nassar. Yet before it became public, Nassar was allowed to quietly “retire” as gymnastics chief medical officer and a USOC medical adviser.

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“Something we have to do in this mess is, we can’t just look at individual sports. We have to look at all of them together,” Little says.

Nothing bespeaks the USOC’s passivity better than the sluggish creation of SafeSport. In the summer of 2010 under pressure from the swimming scandal, the USOC appointed a committee to “study” its sex abuse problem and pledged reform within six months. Not until 2013 did the USOC begin to create an entity to investigate sex abuse, and you know when SafeSport finally opened its doors? In March 2017. Guess who the chief operating officer of SafeSport is? Malia Arrington, the woman who doesn’t believe she has any power to keep child molesters away from young Olympians.

“Go faster,” Probst told SafeSport three weeks ago. The nerve.

Without summoning Probst and the USOC’s longtime lawyers who dictated its legal policies, the House Investigations subcommittee probably won’t get substantive answers or arrive at real reforms. You can’t help noticing the list of people scheduled to testify all assumed their jobs within the last year or so, in the wake of the scandal. USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey was named in June 2017, USA Taekwondo director Steve McNally in September and USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry in November. These are not the people we need to hear from.

If the USOC is not held to account, the toxic culture of sexual abuse will persist, and the enablers will be emboldened. To date, Olympic officialdom has furnished nothing but bland pledges. As Judge Rosemarie Aquilina put it, in sentencing Nassar to 40 to 125 years after hearing from 150 of his victims, “Silence is indifference.” So is inaction.