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.

Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

MORE: Wyomia Tyus’ Olympic protest resonates 52 years later

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

MORE: When Michael Jordan lost in wheelchair basketball to Paralympian

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