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With USOC in turmoil, athletes testify about sex-abuse cases

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The question sex-abuse victim Craig Maurizi would like to ask U.S. Olympic leaders is simple and searing: “How can you sleep at night?”

Every bit as perplexing: How to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

The figure skater was one of four Olympic-sports athletes who testified to a Senate subcommittee Wednesday about abuse they suffered while training and competing under the purview of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the national sports organizations that controlled their Olympic dreams.

Their testimony provided yet another reminder of the way leaders at the USOC, US Figure Skating, USA Gymnastics and other federations failed to protect them over a span of decades.

At a USOC board meeting held later in the day, acting CEO Susanne Lyons outlined a six-part “Athlete Action Safety Plan” the federation is developing as a response to the abuse cases.

But the abuse victims, including Olympic gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Jamie Dantzscher and speed skater Bridie Farrell, cast doubt on the USOC’s motivation to solve this problem.

Wieber, who won a gold medal in 2012, is among the roughly 200 athletes who have detailed abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar, who is in prison for molesting athletes on the U.S. gymnastics team and at Michigan State.

“After many people came forward and said Larry Nassar had abused them, I didn’t get a phone call from anyone at the USOC asking anything until after I gave a victim-impact statement,” Wieber said, recalling the emotional week in a Michigan courtroom that spotlighted the depth of the abuse scandal. “If you’re not currently a competing athlete, you’re not really relevant. They don’t really care anymore.”

The USOC is in search of a new CEO — someone to replace Scott Blackmun, who resigned with health problems in February.

When Blackmun resigned, the USOC announced a number of initiatives that mirrored the six-part plan Lyons described Wednesday.

It includes more funding for abuse victims and a review of the governance structure of the USOC and the 47 national governing bodies, whose sports make up the Olympics.

The USOC has also doubled its funding — to $3.1 million a year — for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which opened last year.

Two months ago, the center responded to Maurizi’s call about a four-decade-old abuse case that US Figure Skating swept under the rug when he first reported it 20 years ago.

“When I think back to my particular situation, there’s just no way that dozens, if not hundreds, of people around the ice rink didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “Five-hour meetings in the office with a 15-year-old boy? That’s ridiculous. So, my question would be: How do you live with yourself? … How can you sleep at night?”

Leaders at the USOC, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State could be forced to answer those questions May 22, which is the date the Senate subcommittee has scheduled its next hearing on the sex-abuse cases.

It’s doubtful the USOC will have a new CEO by then, though it’s becoming clear it needs a well-articulated path forward through a devastating 12 months for Olympic athletes and the organizations that are supposed to protect them.

Max Siegel, the CEO of USA Track and Field, said commercial partners are hesitant to strike deals under the current climate.

“It’s an indication to me that it’s impacting the commercial viability of the business, and it’s a reflection of the societal challenges we face,” he said.

He said he was not opposed to a rethinking of the relationship between the USOC and NGBs, which have long valued their independence as the training grounds for Olympic athletes. The USOC has often positioned itself as an umbrella organization — a mere bystander when it comes to day-to-day operation of the sports.

“It’s not always clear what role we should be playing,” said Lyons, who attended the hearings in Washington. “Sometimes, athletes fall between the cracks a bit when they have issues with NGBs.”

Farrell served up the only concrete proposal in the more than two hours of testimony to the Senate subcommittee.

She would like to see more athletes — closer to 50 percent — placed on NGB boards. She’d also like to see retired athletes given a chance to serve.

The USOC appears amenable to that suggestion; one of its reforms is to see that athletes have a louder voice in decisions that impact them.

When asked what she would say to the leaders, Farrell said she would make one simple request:

“Take our names out, take our pictures out, and put their kids’ names and pictures in there, and see if it makes a difference,” she said. “Let them know there are thousands of people looking at them, as they should be, for missing the opportunity.”

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Lawmakers choke back tears, scream at Olympic sport leaders for sex-abuse scandal

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The tears and anger this time came from lawmakers who spent the day fuming over a growing sex-abuse problem in Olympic sports that leaders have taken too much time to solve while devoting too little money for the fixes.

“I just hope everyone here realizes the time to talk is over, and you need to walk your talk,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said Wednesday shortly after choking back tears while questioning leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

The hearing of the House subcommittee was filled with both substance and spectacle — the latter coming mostly courtesy of a five-minute burst from Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., who told the USOC’s acting CEO, Susanne Lyons, “you should resign your position now,” and tore into USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry and the rest of the panel for not uttering the exact words: “I’m sorry.”

“If you don’t want to say you’re sorry, I don’t want to talk to you,” said Carter, who represents the district where a lawsuit that triggered the mushrooming scandal in gymnastics was filed.

In fact, members on the panel of U.S. sports executives did apologize to the victims, whose numbers grow almost daily and whose pain was most heart-wrenchingly displayed during the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, the Michigan State doctor who also worked for the U.S. gymnastics team.

But set against the USOC’s slow-moving reforms, to say nothing of the raw numbers presented by SafeSport CEO Shellie Pfohl, some of the apologies felt hollow.

The USOC started talking about reforming its sex-abuse policy in 2010 after a scandal was exposed inside of USA Swimming. From then, it took seven years to open the SafeSport center to independently investigate sex-abuse claims made by Olympic athletes. Pfohl described an office that has been overwhelmed in the 14 months it has been in business.

— When it opened in March 2017, Pfohl said the center received 20 to 30 calls a month. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the Nassar case, that has increased to about 20 to 30 calls per week.

— SafeSport operates on a budget of $4.3 million a year, $1.55 million of which was recently added as part of the USOC’s mission to bolster its response to the abuse issue. That brought the USOC’s contribution to $3.1 million. (By comparison, the USOC gave the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, in charge of Olympic drug testing in the United States, $3.7 million in 2016. Its budget is more than $19 million.)

— The budget is enough for 14 full-time employees, which includes five full-time investigators. Seven additional investigators work on a contract basis. The center has fielded 840 reports over 14 months. Reports have come in regarding 38 of the 49 national governing bodies.

— Part of the delay in opening the SafeSport center came because the USOC met reluctance from almost everyone in funding, both from outside and inside the Olympic movement. The NGBs are charged on a sliding scale, depending on their size. USA Swimming contributed only $43,000 this year, “but we’re one of the larger NGBs, and based on who we are, we could provide more resources,” CEO Tim Hinchey said.

Pfohl said she wouldn’t turn it down.

Meanwhile, she is still waiting for paperwork to apply for a $2.5 million grant the government wrote into this year’s budget. (The government gave $9.5 million to USADA in 2016.)

The witnesses testified to a continued lack of uniformity in sex-abuse policies among the NGBs, despite efforts that date to at least 2013. Some publish full lists of banned coaches and athletes. Some distribute them only to members of the organizations. Under terms of a recently passed law to protect athletes, the NGBs are supposed to be audited randomly by the SafeSport center, but that project is hamstrung because resources do not exist.

Meanwhile, the role of the USOC in overseeing it all remains confusing.

Brought up more than once was an exchange during a deposition for a sex-abuse lawsuit in which a USOC lawyer was asked if protecting athletes was a top priority for the federation.

“The USOC does not have athletes,” answered Gary Johansen — speaking to the reality that, except during the Olympics, athletes technically fall under the umbrella of their individual sports.

Lyons said that mindset will change.

“We do hold ourselves responsible, and if there’s a failing, it’s from not properly exercising our authority,” she said.

One of the best examples of the USOC using that authority has been the top-to-bottom housecleaning it demanded from USA Gymnastics.

Most news about the federation’s changes, however, has been delivered in long news releases. Wednesday marked the first time Perry has made public comments since her hiring in December. She left after the hearing without taking questions.

“I’m glad you’re here today, but a lot of people have wanted to hear from you since you took the job,” Dingell said.

But Dingell didn’t really like what she heard — “I don’t hear a sense of urgency,” she said — and she was not alone.

“As compared to how much money a district attorney’s office has, or how much money a Title IX office has at a school, it’s not in the same ballpark at all,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic swimmer and outspoken critic of the USOC’s efforts, said of the SafeSport budget. “Shellie desperately needs more money.”

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Lindsey Vonn, Ronda Rousey among athletes featured on Shark Week

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Olympic medalists Lindsey Vonn and Ronda Rousey headline an athlete roster appearing on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week in two months.

They follow Michael Phelps‘ much talked about Shark Week shows last year.

Vonn will appear on a show called “Monster Tag.” Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski are also included.

They “will join forces with top shark scientists to learn crucial information about the ocean’s top predators,” according to Discovery Channel.

Rousey, a 2008 Olympic judo bronze medalist, will dive with a mako shark in “Uncaged: Shark vs. Ronda Rousey.” The title is similar to “Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White” from last year.

“First, Rousey, in a cage, dives into the ring with several lightweight shark species in the waters off Fiji and then moves onto the main event in New Zealand where she’ll ‘free dive uncaged’ with the heavyweight mako shark,” according to Discovery Channel.

More on Shark Week from Discovery Channel is here.

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