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SafeSport: Olympic sports sex abuse, misconduct claims rise sharply in 2019

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DENVER (AP) — The U.S. Center for SafeSport is fielding 55 percent more reports of sex abuse and other misconduct in 2019 than it did last year, leading to an increasingly urgent debate over who should provide the lion’s share of money to an organization struggling to manage its caseload.

This week, the 2 ½-year-old center, tasked with investigating sex-abuse claims in Olympic sports, received a $1.3 million infusion from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee that brings the USOPC’s overall contribution to $7.4 million in 2019.

The country’s national governing bodies, which oversee the individual Olympic sports, have contributed $2.05 million for this year, and including a small government grant and other donations, the center will operate on $10.5 million in 2019.

Officials at the center worry that’s an untenable amount for an organization that is now receiving an average of 239 reports a month, compared to 154 during a typical month last year.

Out of those, the SafeSport Center has 1,290 open cases, with another 2,237 that have been closed. It has 18 investigators and lawyers (with four vacancies) on a staff of 37 (with six vacancies) to handle them. The center projects it will need to double its staff next year and triple it by 2023 to keep up with the work.

The stark numbers lend urgency to a fight over who should fund the center in the long term. The USOPC, which founded the center, is pushing the federal government to provide more than what it currently allots — a $2.2 million grant spread over three years, none of which can be used for investigations.

“I think it’s an ‘And’ question, not an ‘Or’ question,” said USOCP CEO Sarah Hirshland, who has been lobbying lawmakers to provide government money to help.

A pair of senators, meanwhile, have proposed a bill that, in addition to adding oversight to the Olympic movement, would compel the USOPC and NGBs to essentially double what they provide now, increasing the grants to a total of $20 million a year.

Nearly half of the 50 NGBs operate on annual budgets of $3 million or less, and though each NGB pays according to its size and, in extreme cases, the number of reports its sport has referred to the center, there is concern that neither the NGBs nor the USOPC can absorb big increases in their SafeSport budgets.

“The $20 million proposal would absolutely force us to make some difficult choices,” Hirshland said.

The USOPC brought in around $323 million in revenue in 2018 up from $183 million in ’17; the federation’s numbers spike in Olympic years and go down during non-Olympic years. It uses the money to support athletes in a number of ways — including training, insurance, prize money for winners of major events and NGB funding.

Last year, administrative costs rose to more than 11 percent of total spending ($31.2 million) because of payments to two law firms that did work involving the sex-abuse scandal and a severance to former CEO Scott Blackmun.

Hirshland and other leaders are pointing to the model that funds the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency; USADA received about $9.5 million of its $21 million in 2018 revenue from government, another $5.1 million from the USOPC and $6.7 million from “testing and other services,” according to its annual report.

“I think that makes sense, because we’re addressing societal issue, and government’s authority to protect and serve fits in really well in that area,” said Max Cobb, the CEO of U.S. Biathlon, who heads up the NGB Council.

But the red tape the center had to go through to receive the $2.2 million, combined with the restrictions put on the money and uncertainty over the Congressional appropriations process, gives pause to the new center’s CEO, Ju’Riese Colon, about relying too heavily on government funding.

“The USOPC and the NGBs must be invested in changing their sport culture, which means they must invest in the Center,” Colon said, while adding that she’s not against receiving money from the government, as well. “While I appreciate people connecting us (to USADA) because we’re certainly similar, the job and scope is so different, and I think the funding is going to have to be a lot different.”

When he, along with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, introduced the bill that calls for $20 million, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, called it a more direct and dependable pathway for the center to receive the money than relying on government.

“Having a secure and stable source of funding is very important. It fortifies the independence and integrity” of the center, Blumenthal said.

Recently, the House passed a spending bill that included $2.5 million for the SafeSport Center. The Senate is expected to consider that bill next week.

Even if that money gets approved, the center will need more to keep up with its caseload.

Around the time it opened in March 2017, the center received an average of 31 reports a month. That number exploded in the beginning of 2018, when Larry Nassar’s victims spoke up during his sentencing hearing for sex crimes. By last fall, with the #MeToo movement in full swing and Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing making headlines, the number spiked again.

It’s grown even more in 2019, with each sex-related headline triggering more calls.

Meanwhile, an independent consultant hired by the center projects the number of calls will continue to increase until it caps at around 8,000 a year — an average of 667 a month.

Colon says many of the reports could become less complicated as the knowledge from center’s education programs seeps into sports communities and issues are reported before they become overly complicated.

About one-fifth of the center’s workforce (eight employees) is devoted to education-and-outreach programs to serve up to 18 million members of national governing bodies across the country. So far, the center has trained about 800,000 of those people.

The independent consultant suggested to Colon that, given the workload, the center could use $35 million in 2020. But the center has more modest hopes — hoping to increase USOPC and NGB donations to bring next year’s budget to $16 million.

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Figure skating Grand Prix Series will be held as ‘domestic’ competitions

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go ahead as scheduled this fall, with modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Skating Union decided Monday.

Each of the series’ six tops around the globe will be “a domestic run event,” limited to skaters of the event’s host country, who regularly train in the host country and from a respective geographical area. The number of disciplines and skaters at each event are to be worked out.

The Grand Prix Series, held annually since 1995, is a six-event fall season, qualifying the top six skaters and teams per discipline to December’s Grand Prix Final. The annual stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan, leading up to the Final, which is held at a different site each year.

The Final is the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships, which are typically in late March. The Final is still scheduled for Beijing, though whether or when it can be held will be discussed.

The series begins in late October with Skate America, which debuted in 1979 and has been held every year since 1988 as the biggest annual international competition in the U.S. Skate America’s site is Las Vegas, just as it was in 2019.

Skaters typically compete twice on the Grand Prix Series (three times if they qualify for the Final). ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start in the six-event series before the Final, according to a Russian media quote confirmed by Phil Hersh.

The ISU has not confirmed or denied Lakernik’s assertion.

Most, if not all, top-level U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada. That makes the first two Grand Prix stops — Skate America and Skate Canada — likely destinations. Grand Prix assignments have not been published.

“I appreciate the ISU is open to adapting competitive formats and is working to give athletes opportunities to compete,” Evan Bates, a U.S. ice dance champion with Madison Chock who trains in Montreal, wrote in a text message to Hersh. “This announcement gives reassurance that the ISU is doing their best to ensure a season will still take place. Of course, it’s hard to predict what will happen, and we’re not sure about what country we would compete in. It would probably depend on what the quarantine rules are at that time.”

The January 2021 U.S. Championships are scheduled for San Jose, Calif. The March 2021 World Championships are set for Stockholm.

In July, the ISU canceled the Junior Grand Prix Series for skaters mostly ages 13 to 18, including two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who cannot enter the senior Grand Prix until 2021.

Other early season senior international competitions scheduled for September were also canceled or postponed.

U.S. Figure Skating said in a statement that it will have more details on the Grand Prix Series in the coming weeks after collaborating with an ISU-appointed group.

“This is a great example of the figure skating community coming together to ensure that the world’s premier figure skating series will continue during these challenging times,” the statement read. “Figure skaters want to compete and figure skating fans from all around the world want to see their favorite athletes skate, and this format will ensure just that.”

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Respectfully, Donavan Brazier believes he has a chance at legendary record

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On the night of the biggest race of his life, Donavan Brazier met the man whom he is trying to succeed and, perhaps, supplant.

David Rudisha, the two-time Olympic 800m champion and world-record holder, told Brazier before the Oct. 1 world championships 800m final that he believed in the 22-year-old American more than any other man in that night’s event.

Later that evening in Doha, Brazier proved the sidelined Kenyan prophetic, winning in a national record 1:42.34 and becoming the first American to win a world title in the event.

Brazier, in his first global championship final, also ran the fastest time by somebody that young since Rudisha’s 2012 Olympic title and world-record epic pulled that field to personal bests.

Rudisha’s mark of 1:40.91 — from a race Brazier has watched dozens of times — is still significantly faster. That hasn’t stopped followers from wondering if Rudisha’s days as world-record holder may be numbered.

Sounds like Brazier may be wondering, too.

“I think I definitely have the opportunity,” Brazier told NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey in a watchback of his 2019 Diamond League and world titles. “If we’re looking at guys that are currently racing right now, I think I might have the best opportunity to do it.”

Brazier exercised caution. He was by no means predicting such a feat.

“David Rudisha, when he first broke it, he was a once-in-a-century athlete,” Brazier said. “For someone to break it so quick and just to say it so nonchalantly, I think it’s not really giving David Rudisha the respect that he deserves. A 1:40.91 is a really dangerous record to break.”

Brazier, who took up running in middle school in Michigan rather than football because he was “terribly skinny,” quickly became a dangerous prospect. In 2016, he went into the Olympic Trials ranked third in the world as a Texas A&M freshman.

Then came the obstacles. Brazier was eliminated in the first round of trials, three weeks after winning the NCAA title on the same Oregon track. In 2017, he won the U.S. title but failed to make the world final. He didn’t race at all outdoors in 2018 due to a foot injury.

Brazier looked at 2019 as a redemption year. He hit a series of successes: an American indoor 800m record, the world’s fastest indoor 600m in history, his first Diamond League win, a repeat national title and the Diamond League Final title.

Brazier said that last victory in Zurich took him from “not a well known guy, maybe a medal contender, maybe not,” to the world championships favorite. Rudisha hasn’t raced since 2017 due to injuries.

Brazier, after meeting Rudisha and former world-record holder Seb Coe, capped the season with his biggest title yet in Doha. The feeling was more relief than happiness. Brazier, after getting knocked down repeatedly in his first two seasons as a pro, noted that Muhammad Ali also won his first world title at age 22.

Brazier mouthed “thank you” after crossing the finish line, a salute to everybody who helped him reach that point.

“I’m thanking myself, too, because I’m the one who put in all the hard work to do it,” Brazier said. “I’m not saying that this is the end of my career, but it was definitely the peak of my career and the pinnacle of it. I never accomplished anything on a stage like that.”

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