Overhaul would give Congress power to fire USOPC board

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A bill spurred by Larry Nassar’s sex crimes and other mishandled abuse cases would allow Congress to fire the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s entire board and would quadruple the money the federation provides to the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

The bill, to be introduced Tuesday, is the most far-reaching response to 18 months of outrage, investigations and recriminations in the wake of the USOPC’s handling of the cases involving Nassar and others who combined to victimize dozens of Olympic athletes.

“The best way for the USOC and the national governing (bodies) to show they’re serious about stopping abuse is to support this legislation,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. “It’ll be a test to their commitment to turning a new page and bringing in a new era.”

The bill would increase athlete representation on the USOPC board and boards of other Olympic sports organizations (NGBs) from 20 to 33 percent.

It would make the USOPC and NGBs legally responsible for not reporting sexual abuse or failing to take measures to prevent it.

The law calls for the USOPC to provide $20 million a year to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, but offers no specifics as to how the additional $15 million will be funded.

The USOPC, which receives no federal funding, gave $3.1 million in 2018 and NGBs doubled their pledge to a total of $2 million.

Last year, Congress provided a $2.2 million grant to the center that was spread over three years and could not be used for investigations.

Blumenthal said having a concrete number that’s separate from the Congressional appropriations process is a better way of ensuring the success of the center and the USOC’s responsibility for funding it. The USOC brings in around $500 million over a typical two-year period.

But as much as the money, this bill is a virtual top-to-bottom reset of the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act, passed in 1978 during a time when the biggest concern was corralling the amateurism and cronyism that festered throughout Olympic governance in the United States.

The law was hazy, at best, regarding the USOC’s power to dictate to the NGBs it oversees. It said even less about athlete welfare and what, if any, legal repercussions existed for failing to protect them.

Those flaws created an environment that allowed Nassar to abuse dozens of gymnasts while volunteering for USA Gymnastics, and for his crimes to go unchecked for more than a year after the concerns were first presented to the USOPC.

This bill, called the “Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019,” would attempt to change that, in part by leaving little gray area about the USOPC’s oversight responsibilities of NGBs, especially in regard to sex abuse.

It calls for the USOPC to renew an NGB’s standing every four years, subject to a review that would include how the organization is complying with safe-sports rules. It gives Congress the right to decertify an NGB.

It would also eliminate the tactic currently being used by USA Gymnastics, as it faces decertification: filing bankruptcy to forestall the proceedings.

And though the USOPC has always had to answer to Congress, the stakes would be much higher — and written in plain black and white.

The 14-person board, which has gone largely — and, in many minds, inappropriately — unscathed in a series of damning reports that detailed the failings of the federation, could be dismissed by a simple majority vote in Congress.

The bill includes language that would expedite the vote, while also giving lawmakers the tricky task of figuring out how the board would be replaced.

USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said that while the bill complements the federation’s push for reforms, it “could result in unintended consequences and disruption for athletes in operational reality.”

For instance, the $20 million to SafeSport, along with the increased oversight and added audits and compliance measures, could impact funding available for training. Luring board members for a volunteer position (but one with perks) could be more difficult with the threat of Congressional pink slips hanging over their heads.

Adding athletes to those boards, and eliminating a requirement that they be no more than 10 years removed from elite competition, will create various challenges for the USOPC and the NGBs — most related in some way to finding enough functional business and current-day sports experience to run these confusing operations.

The bill, and the process that led to it, involved lawmakers digging into far more detail than they usually care to know regarding the day-to-day operation of the byzantine Olympic sports world — a world that has provided them an easy platform for flag waving without having to sweat the small stuff.

But given the bipartisan nature of this bill — and similar bipartisan outrage displayed during hearings on the House side — there appears to be more will to dig deep and push for change in the wake of the abuse scandal, the victims of which have captured as many headlines as any gold-medal winner since Nassar’s crimes became widely known.

“The simple stark fact is that the USOC has taken some baby steps, but they’re nowhere near the kind of major reforms that need to be done,” Blumenthal said.

Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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