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USOC calls sex-trafficking lawsuit ‘calculated to offend’

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DENVER (AP) — Two lawsuits filed recently against the U.S. Olympic Committee illustrate the peril the federation finds itself in over its handling of decades’ worth of sex-abuse cases, while shining a light on the murky relationship the USOC has with the sports organizations it oversees.

Martha and Bela Karolyi are suing the USOC, along with USA Gymnastics, seeking damages for the canceled sale of their famed Texas training center — a transaction that tanked in the wake of sex-abuse cases involving team doctor Larry Nassar.

Four taekwondo athletes are suing the USOC and USA Taekwondo for sex trafficking, alleging the federations allowed athletes to train and travel with “known predator coaches.” Last month, Olympic coach Jean Lopez was banned for life after the U.S. Center for SafeSport found he engaged in a decade-long pattern of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse of younger female athletes. Lopez’s younger brother, two-time Olympic champion Steven, is temporarily banned while the center investigates his case.

Of the taekwondo lawsuit, USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said “counsel’s fantastical claims seem calculated to provoke and offend rather than to genuinely seek relief from the judicial system.”

“It appears to be a cynical attempt by counsel to subvert important protective laws with the goal of sensationalizing this case,” Sandusky said. “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.”

Though the USOC is being targeted in the lawsuits — and also received plenty of credit for the Olympic medals won thanks to the Karolyi and Lopez families — those families’ day-to-day jobs were working not for the USOC, but for the national governing bodies (NGBs) that run their individual sports.

Later this month, leaders of the USOC and several NGBs will appear in front of Congress, where they’ll likely be asked to explain the opaque nature of the relationships the USOC has with NGBs — relationships that are not fully understood by the general public, by lawmakers attempting to grasp the problem or, often, even by the athletes and administrators who serve as their lifeblood.

In short, the USOC gives millions to these organizations for athlete development, with the ultimate goal of winning Olympic medals. But the USOC doesn’t train the athletes, and the athletes only officially come under the USOC umbrella during the Olympics. The USOC has oversight responsibilities over the country’s 47 NGBs but has long struggled to find the right balance over how much control to take over facets of their governance structure and their day-to-day operations.

This uncertainty has created mistrust and confusion regarding NGBs’ pursuit of abuse cases: Because it does not oversee the operations of the NGBs, the USOC could claim to not be responsible for investigating sex-abuse cases against them.

And yet, the USOC did call for and receive the resignation of USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny in March 2017. But it took almost another year — and the revelation of more abuse cases, along with the fact that Penny had been in touch with USOC CEO Scott Blackmun about Nassar — before the USOC hired an independent investigator to look into its own handling of the Nassar case, which now stands as the Olympic movement’s most searing “#MeToo” moment.

Blackmun resigned in February, citing health issues, but not before he also spearheaded the call for the resignation of the entire USAG board of directors.

Meanwhile, athletes have spoken of being confused about which, if any, Olympic organizations would listen to their claims. Sometimes, they were dissuaded from pursuing cases, told that the need to protect the rights of the accused and statute-of-limitations laws would make their cases difficult.

The USOC has tried to improve handling of these cases in recent years, most notably by establishing the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which takes the investigation and prosecution of the cases out of the hands of the NGBs.

But for decades before the center’s 2017 opening, the NGBs and the USOC were widely viewed as the first and last resort for these athletes, who often took their complaints to their own Olympic leaders instead of directly to law enforcement.

It was a long-standing problem .

When he was president of USA Gymnastics in 1999, Bob Colarossi sent a letter to USOC leadership taking issue with the USOC putting the brakes on USAG’s decision to ban a coach who had been convicted of sex crimes because he had not been given a hearing by the Olympic organizations.

“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.”

Elite speed skater Bridie Farrell, who was an abuse victim but kept it secret for years, says she thinks USOC and NGB decisions have always come down to a simple equation: “I don’t think it’s the idea of giving the accused due process,” she said. “I think it’s just putting the two sides on the scale and seeing which one has more potential for medals, sponsors, funding.”

“I don’t think these people are all bad people,” Farrell said. “But I think in the moment of truth, they were all cowards, and it took 250 strong, brave women to stand up in gymnastics to try to get these people to change.”

The gymnasts’ victim-impact statements during Nassar’s sentencing for possession of child pornography and sexual assault served as a turning point in the sex-abuse scandal — as athletes gave gut-wrenching voice to the abuse Nassar inflicted on them while he served as a doctor for the Olympic gymnastics team and for Michigan State athletics.

Congress, which has ultimate oversight of the U.S. Olympic movement via the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act, is getting more involved.

In January, it passed a bill that makes members of amateur sports organizations, including those that run Olympic sports, mandatory reporters of sexual abuse, and requires the organizations to implement standard protections for athletes.

Last month, Farrell testified alongside Olympic gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Jamie Dantzscher at a Senate subcommittee hearing to discuss abuse. On May 23, the same subcommittee will hear from leaders of the USOC, USA Gymnastics, USA Taekwondo and Michigan State about an issue that has led to the departures of all those leaders’ predecessors over the past 14 months.

Since the spate of cases became public, the USOC has taken a number of measures, including increasing funding to the SafeSport center and adding resources for sex-abuse victims. It has created a unified approach to the handling of sex-abuse cases across the range of NGBs.

“The USOC is deeply focused on supporting, protecting and empowering the athletes we serve,” Sandusky said.

Even with its renewed focus, the USOC has a long road ahead to regain the trust of athletes, parents and, now, lawmakers, who have been hands-off for more than a decade but are showing signs of moving closer to revisiting the amateur sports act, which codifies the relationship between the USOC and the NGBs.

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Allyson Felix withdraws from Prefontaine Classic

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Allyson Felix withdrew on the eve of the Prefontaine Classic and will miss Saturday’s anticipated 400m showdown with Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world champion Phyllis Francis.

No reason was given by the meet director at a Friday press conference, according to media in Eugene, Ore.

Felix, a nine-time Olympic medalist and 16-time world outdoor championships medalist, was scheduled to race on the top international level for the first time since Aug. 20. She has raced in smaller meets this season, most recently last Friday.

This is the one year in the four-year cycle without an Olympics or world outdoor championships, making the Diamond League, and the Pre Classic in particular, marquee meets.

“In the 19 years that I’ve been running track, I’ve never taken a break,” the 32-year-old Felix said in an Instagram video Thursday after an intense training session but before her name was taken off Saturday’s start list. “Never had a year where I took it easy. … Now that this is kind of a year without a championship, I’ve had to force myself to have a different approach because my goal is 2020. … To be able to be at my best when it counts, I think that means not having as intense of a year as I usually do. Being a competitor and an athlete, that’s something that I struggle with. … This year, that’s what I’m really trying to force myself to do is have quality races, quality over quantity. … So, if you guys don’t see me at as many of the races as I usually run, don’t worry, I’m fine, I’m just challenging myself to be smarter.”

Felix will miss the Pre Classic for the second time in the last nine years. She was absent in 2016 with an ankle injury.

The USATF Outdoor Championships are in one month.

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Will Japan’s Olympic legend return for Tokyo 2020?

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NEW YORK — The Tokyo Olympics are in 790 days. Will Japan’s most dominant Olympian compete?

“She hasn’t decided yet,” a translator said beside wrestler Kaori Icho, who stood in street clothes, some given to her by an American host family, matside at the annual Beat the Streets meet on the edge of the East River on Manhattan last week.

Icho, who turns 34 on June 13, is the only woman to earn an individual gold medal at four Olympics. She has not wrestled in competition since capturing that fourth title in Rio. She has not announced retirement, either.

Icho once held a 13-year winning streak on the mat and owns 10 world championships.

While in New York, Icho did a high school clinic in Brooklyn (one wonders if the students knew they were learning from the greatest of all time), met Olympic and world champion Kyle Snyder (a particular highlight of this trip) and trained with Helen Maroulis before attending the meet as a spectator. In Rio, Maroulis became the first American woman to win an Olympic wrestling title.

Maroulis is familiar with Icho. In 2012, they trained together and drove to a Drake concert in Colorado. They met again in 2014. But last week was different. The most intense training they’ve shared. Their first full practice, said Maroulis, recently cleared from a January concussion.

“I think she’s coming back,” Maroulis said with confidence. Here’s why: “[Icho] busted out the video camera,” Maroulis went on. “Like, hey, can I record practice?

“She feels good. She’s still got it. She’s smaller than she was, obviously, right at the Olympics. She’s amazing. There’s so much to learn from her.”

Icho said through the translator that if she does come back, she would start in the next year rather than leaving it a few months before the Tokyo Games.

She is already the oldest woman to win Olympic wrestling gold (women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, Icho’s first Games). By 2020, she will be older than any men’s wrestling champion since Bulgarian Valentin Yordanov in 1996.

How much a home Olympics influences Icho’s decision is something that she didn’t share. Icho said she might go for a fifth Olympics even if the 2020 Games were not in Japan.

“It’s hard to say,” said Ken Marantz, who has covered sports in Japan for three decades. “She’s kind of a quiet person.”

United World Wrestling shadowed Icho and the more-famous Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida before the Rio Olympics as both trained to go for their fourth gold medals. The international federation made a 20-minute documentary titled, “The Celebrity and the Samurai.”

Yoshida was the celebrity, her face a constant on TV, Icho the samurai, a zen-like warrior. Yoshida would lose in her Rio Olympic final to Maroulis, one day after Icho won her weight class.

“Kaori, she was always more private and less approachable, not in a bad way,” said William May, who has written about international wrestling for 30 years, including for Kyodo News in Tokyo. “She’s always been kind of a mystery to the Japanese.”

Like when she lived in Canada with her sister for months after the 2008 Olympics, skipping a world championships during her peak years.

“It’s not that I don’t like being on TV, but I don’t like my practice time being taken away or to lose time for myself,” Icho said in the 2016 United World Wrestling film.

Something else to consider is that Japan is the world power in women’s wrestling. It might be more difficult for Icho to earn Japan’s one available Olympic spot in the 58kg division than run through the Olympic bracket of the best from the rest of the world.

Japanese women took gold at the 2017 World Championships in both the 55kg and 60kg divisions. Those two women, both several years younger than Icho, must choose to go for the Olympics in the 53kg, 58kg or 63kg divisions.

Maroulis, who now competes at 58kg, wants to face Icho at the Olympics in what she called “a dream” matchup. The American’s dominance the last three years rivals Icho’s heyday — world titles in 2015 and 2017 without surrendering a point, winning the latter title with a torn thumb ligament, and dethroning Yoshida in Rio in between, all three golds at different weights while compiling a 78-1 record before the concussion.

Icho described her recent practice with Maroulis as “very hard.”

“She doesn’t quit,” Icho said through the translator. “She just keeps coming.”

Icho re-emerged in Japanese headlines in recent months as a tragic figure. A reported history of verbal harassment and threats from a Japanese Wrestling Federation director who resigned.

The biggest Japanese athlete story at the Tokyo Games would be if two-way baseball star Shohei Ohtani suited up, Marantz said. But Ohtani is on a Los Angeles Angels contract until 2024, which would keep him out of the Games unless MLB reverses its stance and releases players for the Olympics.

After that, perhaps Kohei Uchimura, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic all-around champion gymnast expected to compete in fewer events in the last years of his career. (Icho said that if she could pick anybody to light the Olympic cauldron, not including wrestlers, it would be Uchimura.)

Or the Japanese men’s 4x100m relay team that took silver in Rio and bronze at the 2017 Worlds. Or a rising group of table tennis players challenging the rival Chinese.

Swimming, gymnastics and judo are more popular sports in Japan than wrestling, Marantz said. But the nation would be pulling for Icho’s pursuit of individual gold in five Olympics, something no man or woman from any nation in any sport has done.

“Icho does not care one bit for records,” Tim Foley, who followed Icho for the 2016 film and escorted her in New York, said before the Rio Games. 

“Of course [Icho] wants to win, but it’s less important than wrestling a perfect match,” May said. That’s one thing she hasn’t done.

“I think she likes the challenge,” Marantz said. “Any tournaments that I went to that she won, which was all the ones she was in, she never, ever said she wrestled good.”

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