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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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Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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