In March 2013, a few weeks after she publicly accused one of the most accomplished American athletes in her sport of molesting her when she was 15, speedskater Bridie Farrell met with U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun to discuss sex abuse in America’s Olympic organizations.
As they met at USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs, Farrell recalled recently, Blackmun praised her courage and then made a request: If other victims approached Farrell, she should tell them to contact the USOC and not to speak to the media.
A few minutes later, as Farrell pressed Blackmun to force U.S. Speedskating to punish Andy Gabel, the retired skater whom she accused of abuse, Blackmun said there was nothing he could do. While the USOC provides funding to Olympic sport governing bodies such as U.S. Speedskating — mostly tied to helping their athletes win medals — Blackmun said he had no authority to intervene in a disciplinary matter, according to Farrell.
“It felt like he was just trying to kind of keep it quiet,” said Farrell, now 36. “I told him, ‘I don’t trust you.’ And he’s done nothing since to show me any reason to think differently.”
Blackmun, who is recovering from surgery for prostate cancer, declined an interview request. “Scott has a very different recollection of his conversation with Ms. Farrell, but she deserves our support, not our disagreement,” USOC spokesman Mark Jones wrote in an email.
As the Winter Olympics play out on the other side of the globe, the USOC is facing rising criticism and scrutiny following last month’s sentencing of convicted child molester Larry Nassar, the longtime Olympic women’s gymnastics team physician accused by more than 260 girls and women, including several Olympians, of sexual assault. Two senators have called for Blackmun to resign, and three congressional committees are demanding answers from the USOC about its knowledge of Nassar’s abuse.
As outrage in the public and Congress boiled over during Nassar’s sentencing hearing last month, Blackmun and the USOC forced a wholesale change in USA Gymnastics leadership and pledged to help reform an exploitative culture in elite gymnastics that USOC officials have deplored for prioritizing winning medals over protecting children.
But according to interviews with dozens of victims and Olympic insiders and a review of thousands of pages of records produced in lawsuits against Olympic organizations, some of the blame for that culture belongs with the USOC.
Conversations recalled by victims and advocates, as well as in testimony offered in lawsuits, show Blackmun and other top USOC officials identifying winning as many Olympic medals as possible as the organization’s core mission while deferring athlete welfare to the individual sports’ national governing bodies, whose autonomy is established in the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act.
But victims and their advocates point out that when abuse scandals garner public outrage and congressional attention, as the Nassar case did, the USOC is willing to exercise authority, pressuring governing bodies’ CEOs and board members to step down.
“This has been going on for a long time, and it’s not just a gymnastics problem,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic champion swimmer, civil rights attorney and victims’ advocate who is among those who have called for Blackmun to resign for the USOC’s failure to act aggressively in response to prior abuse scandals — most notably, one involving USA Swimming from 2010 to 2012.
“The USOC has just not wanted this [abuse prevention] to be on their plate. They didn’t want it to be their responsibility until now,” Hogshead-Makar said. “You needed to have a perpetrator that molested this many victims. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
In an email in response to questions about criticism raised by victims and advocates, USOC spokesman Jones defended the organization’s abuse prevention efforts, such as requiring basic child protection measures at Olympic sports organizations in 2014 and the creation of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit that opened last year to take over dealing with suspicions of abuse committed by Olympic-affiliated coaches, athletes and officials.
“Athlete protection is everyone’s responsibility, and we have repeatedly made that case in words and actions,” Jones wrote.
At a news conference in PyeongChang, South Korea, this month, USOC Chairman Larry Probst defended Blackmun as having “served the USOC with distinction” and said “the Olympic system” failed Nassar’s victims.
“Obviously, USA Gymnastics needs to do more. They need a complete culture change. . . . The USOC can do more. . . . The IOC can do more,” Probst said. “Everybody that’s part of the Olympic movement needs to step up their game in this area.”
But to those who have spoken out about sex abuse in Olympic sports over the years, the USOC’s sudden alarm over gymnastics — after failing to crack down on officials during similar scandals involving USA Swimming, U.S. Speedskating, USA Judo and USA Taekwondo — seems disingenuous.
“For Blackmun to say it’s not happening anywhere else or this is only a gymnastics problem is sheer nonsense,” said Mike Saltzstein, a former vice president of USA Swimming who publicly voiced his concerns about sex abuse in that sport in 2010. “To not know this was going on. . . . You would have had to have been blind, deaf and dumb.”
In some ways, it’s ironic that USA Gymnastics is the organization in the midst of the abuse scandal that has senators calling for change in USOC leadership. While sport national governing bodies, as a group, were years behind peer organizations in mandating protection measure such as criminal background checks and abuse education programs for coaches, USA Gymnastics actually has been among the more aggressive on child protection within this community.
In 1999, in a letter made public last year as evidence in a lawsuit, former USA Gymnastics chief executive Bob Colarossi warned Blackmun, then general counsel of the USOC, and two other top officials that other national governing bodies lacked basic abuse prevention measures.
“This is not an issue that can be wished away,” Colarossi wrote. “The USOC can either position itself as a leader in the protection of young athletes or it can wait until it is forced to deal with the problem under much more difficult circumstances.”
In a phone interview last year, Blackmun pointed out he was not CEO in 1999 and left the organization in 2001, returning nine years later.
“I can’t fix what happened before I arrived here. I can only address what’s happened since 2010,” Blackmun said.
In 2010, a few months after Blackmun returned to the USOC, USA Swimming became the subject of critical media reports about lax policies on sex abuse that allowed predator coaches to access children through the Olympic organization.
Just like USA Gymnastics in 2016, USA Swimming in 2010 publicly acknowledged that for years it required any sex abuse complaints to be in writing and from victims or direct witnesses of abuse. Lawsuits filed by victims of Andy King — a California swim coach convicted in 2010 of molesting three girls, with 12 more claiming abuse dating from the 1970s — produced evidence that USA Swimming chief executive Chuck Wielgus failed to take action on a complaint raised years before King’s arrest.
In 2002, a mother later testified, she called Wielgus to complain about King’s behavior around her daughter, and she said she never heard back from him or anyone at USA Swimming. Wielgus — who died last year — claimed he didn’t remember the conversation.
Evidence also emerged showing Wielgus allowed a USA Swimming national team coach who admitted to having sex with a 14-year-old to resign quietly and take a job working at a country club a few miles away.
In May 2010, Wielgus testified in a deposition in a case filed by an abuse victim of a USA Swimming coach in Indiana. A lawyer asked him to list USA Swimming’s core objectives, and Wielgus replied, “To build the base of our sport, to promote our sport and to achieve success at the international level, in competition.”
The lawyer noted that child safety wasn’t among those and later asked Wielgus whether winning medals was his organization’s core mission.
“The U.S. Olympic Committee certainly feels that way,” Wielgus replied.
Blackmun and the USOC took no punitive measures toward USA Swimming.
Another potential reason for the USOC’s inaction is the organization’s legal interpretation of its role in governance. The Ted Stevens Act guarantees “autonomy” for the Olympic and Pan American national governing bodies for 47 sports, and USOC officials have cited that in multiple legal cases as the reason it cannot discipline coaches or athletes.
In a deposition in a 2016 lawsuit in which a taekwondo athlete alleged she was raped by her coach at the USOC’s Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, USOC lawyer Gary Johansen, who has worked for the organization since 1999, displayed the USOC’s view of its priorities.
“The USOC has a lot of priorities. . . . Chief among them is sending athletes to the Olympic, Pan American and Paralympic Games and doing well at those Games,” Johansen said.
Stephen Estey, the lawyer for the victim, asked Johansen whether protecting athletes from abuse was a top priority for the USOC.
“The USOC does not have athletes,” Johansen answered.
“You send athletes to the Olympics, but they’re not your athletes?” Estey asked.
“That’s correct,” said Johansen, who explained that athlete safety was the responsibility of each sport’s national governing body.
Estey asked what, then, the USOC meant by “Team USA,” if the organization has no athletes.
“That’s a branding terminology,” Johansen replied.
In a statement, USOC spokesman Jones wrote the organization “fundamentally rejected” any characterization of Johansen’s words that implies the USOC is indifferent to sex abuse in Olympic sports. Johansen, who is in Korea this week, did not respond to an interview request.
Years before Ronda Rousey was a well-known professional wrestler and mixed martial artist, she was an aspiring Olympic judo fighter who spoke out about ignored allegations of abuse against a top official in her sport.
In June 2008, on her personal blog, Rousey wrote about allegations that Fletcher Thornton, then a member of USA Judo’s board of directors, had given some of his teenage pupils alcohol and marijuana and molested them in the late 1970s, when he was in his late 30s. Thornton publicly denied the claims and was never charged with a crime, but three athletes had sent written statements to USA Judo, seeking to get him banned from the sport. USA Judo didn’t act on them, its chief executive later explained to a reporter, because the statements had not been submitted under oath, as the organization’s bylaws required.
Frustrated at USA Judo’s inaction, Rousey’s mother — AnnMaria De Mars, herself a former judo fighter who said one of her friends was a victim — called the USOC. She talked to the athlete ombudsman, she said, a position designed to handle Olympic athlete concerns, and cited her concern that a sitting board member was facing such allegations.
The USOC official said the organization couldn’t intervene. He then warned De Mars, she said, that her daughter should be careful because judo is a judged sport and speaking out against a prominent official risked incurring vengeful treatment from judges or referees.
“I don’t think it was a threat,” De Mars said. “He was genuinely concerned it would happen.”
A few weeks later, Rousey’s blog post became the subject of a New York Times story. Suddenly, the USOC announced it would investigate. Before an inquiry could be conducted, Thornton resigned.
The USOC ombudsman in 2008, John Ruger, declined to comment on De Mars’s recollection. A USOC spokesman, in an email, also declined to address the account because it involved a previous administration.
The USOC’s response to the current USA Gymnastics scandal has drawn criticism from victims and their advocates as seemingly dictated more by congressional anger than by the revelations of lapses by USA Gymnastics officials.
In August 2016 — days after an Indianapolis Star investigation revealed USA Gymnastics had for years dismissed sex abuse complaints unless they came in writing from victims or direct witnesses — Blackmun defended USA Gymnastics chief executive Steve Penny and said the USOC wouldn’t launch any kind of inquiry.
“We couldn’t possibly get in the business of investigating allegations of misconduct in 47 different NGBs,” Blackmun said at a news conference before the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
A month later, the Star published the account of two Nassar accusers, prompting dozens more to come forward and file police complaints. In November 2016, Nassar was arrested, and by March 2017, the number of girls and women asserting abuse had surpassed 100.
That month, as a congressional hearing loomed, the USOC’s board pressured Penny to resign. Over the ensuing 10 months, as calls mounted for additional changes at USA Gymnastics and for an independent investigation into how the process was handled, the USOC took no further action.
Then last month, after Nassar’s sentencing hearing reignited outrage about the case, the USOC called for USA Gymnastics’s entire board of directors to resign and announced it had hired a law firm to conduct an independent investigation.
In a letter to that law firm last week, John Manly, attorney for more than 100 Nassar accusers, criticized the USOC’s inquiry as a “public relations effort.”
“But for the public sentencing hearings, and the intense pressure from the media and Congress, the USOC would have simply buried the Nassar case,” Manly wrote.
USOC spokesman Jones defended the organization’s handling of the case and said Blackmun first suggested USA Gymnastics’s entire board needed to step down in a private conversation last year with the organization’s new chief executive.
“But make no mistake, the powerful testimony of Nassar’s victims and survivors absolutely compelled us to take further, more urgent action,” Jones wrote.
De Mars is among those wondering why USOC leadership needed to see and hear the public accounts of sex abuse by 156 girls and women to decide more action was needed.
“I think none of those people give a rat’s ass about sports or athletes. They care about money and power,” De Mars said. “And I feel bad for those kids . . . because the athletes are just a means to an end.”
Rick Maese in PyeongChang, South Korea, contributed to this report.
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