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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