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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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Great Britain gets first win at men’s ice hockey worlds in 57 years

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Lord Stanley would be proud. Great Britain’s men’s ice hockey team pulled off its biggest win in more than a half-century on Monday.

Great Britain beat France 4-3 in overtime at the world championship in Slovakia, in its last game of the tournament, to avoid relegation and remain in the top division of worlds in 2020 with the likes of the U.S., Canada and Russia.

France, whose streak of 12 straight top-level world championship appearances ends, had led 3-0 in the second period.

“We just don’t know when we are beaten,” golden-goal scorer Ben Davies said, according to Ice Hockey U.K. “This just underlines what GB is all about.”

It marked the Brits’ first win at a top-level worlds or Olympics since 1962. Great Britain last qualified for an Olympics in 1948. Its only top-level world championship appearance since 1962 was in 1994, when it lost all five games by a combined 44-7.

At these worlds, Great Britain was outscored 38-5 in its first six games, all losses. It came into the 16-nation event as the lowest-ranked team at No. 22 in the world.

“No one knows anything about U.K. hockey, and the first couple of days here people were laughing at us,” defenseman Ben O’Connor said, according to The New York Times, which reported that fans dressed as Queen Elizabeth II, Mary Poppins, Beefeaters, cricket bats and the Olympic ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards to the Brits’ 6-3 loss to the U.S. last Wednesday.

(h/t @OlympicStatman)

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Caster Semenya enters Pre Classic in new event after testosterone ruling

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Caster Semenya is entered in the Pre Classic on June 30 to run the women’s 3000m, an event that does not fall under the IAAF’s new testosterone limits.

It’s the first announced meet for Semenya since the new IAAF rule capping testosterone in women’s events between the 400m and the mile went into effect. The Court of Arbitration for Sport denied her appeal and upheld the rule on May 1.

Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800m champion, has raced almost exclusively the 400m, 800m and 1500m up until this season.

She won an 800m on May 3 in the last top-level meet before the testosterone cap went into effect for those distances.

At that May 3 meet in Doha, Semenya reportedly said “hell no” when asked if she would take testosterone-suppressing measures to stay eligible for the 400m, 800m or 1500m at the world championships this fall.

Semenya also said she would keep competing but would not race the 5000m, the shortest flat event on the Olympic program that she could move up to without a testosterone cap, according to those same reports.

The flat 3000m is not on the Olympic program (though the 3000m steeplechase is).

South Africa’s track and field federation has indicated it will appeal the CAS ruling.

“I keep training. I keep running,” Semenya said May 3. “Doesn’t matter if something comes in front of me, like I said. I always find a way.”

The Pre Classic women’s 3000m also includes distance titans Almaz Ayana (Olympic 10,000m champion who last raced in 2017), Hellen Obiri (world 5000m champion), Genzebe Dibaba (1500m world-record holder) and Sifan Hassan (world bronze medalist at 1500m and 5000m).

The Pre Classic will be held at Stanford, Calif., this year due to construction at Oregon’s Hayward Field ahead of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials.

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