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Lawmakers choke back tears, scream at Olympic sport leaders for sex-abuse scandal

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The tears and anger this time came from lawmakers who spent the day fuming over a growing sex-abuse problem in Olympic sports that leaders have taken too much time to solve while devoting too little money for the fixes.

“I just hope everyone here realizes the time to talk is over, and you need to walk your talk,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said Wednesday shortly after choking back tears while questioning leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

The hearing of the House subcommittee was filled with both substance and spectacle — the latter coming mostly courtesy of a five-minute burst from Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., who told the USOC’s acting CEO, Susanne Lyons, “you should resign your position now,” and tore into USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry and the rest of the panel for not uttering the exact words: “I’m sorry.”

“If you don’t want to say you’re sorry, I don’t want to talk to you,” said Carter, who represents the district where a lawsuit that triggered the mushrooming scandal in gymnastics was filed.

In fact, members on the panel of U.S. sports executives did apologize to the victims, whose numbers grow almost daily and whose pain was most heart-wrenchingly displayed during the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, the Michigan State doctor who also worked for the U.S. gymnastics team.

But set against the USOC’s slow-moving reforms, to say nothing of the raw numbers presented by SafeSport CEO Shellie Pfohl, some of the apologies felt hollow.

The USOC started talking about reforming its sex-abuse policy in 2010 after a scandal was exposed inside of USA Swimming. From then, it took seven years to open the SafeSport center to independently investigate sex-abuse claims made by Olympic athletes. Pfohl described an office that has been overwhelmed in the 14 months it has been in business.

— When it opened in March 2017, Pfohl said the center received 20 to 30 calls a month. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the Nassar case, that has increased to about 20 to 30 calls per week.

— SafeSport operates on a budget of $4.3 million a year, $1.55 million of which was recently added as part of the USOC’s mission to bolster its response to the abuse issue. That brought the USOC’s contribution to $3.1 million. (By comparison, the USOC gave the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, in charge of Olympic drug testing in the United States, $3.7 million in 2016. Its budget is more than $19 million.)

— The budget is enough for 14 full-time employees, which includes five full-time investigators. Seven additional investigators work on a contract basis. The center has fielded 840 reports over 14 months. Reports have come in regarding 38 of the 49 national governing bodies.

— Part of the delay in opening the SafeSport center came because the USOC met reluctance from almost everyone in funding, both from outside and inside the Olympic movement. The NGBs are charged on a sliding scale, depending on their size. USA Swimming contributed only $43,000 this year, “but we’re one of the larger NGBs, and based on who we are, we could provide more resources,” CEO Tim Hinchey said.

Pfohl said she wouldn’t turn it down.

Meanwhile, she is still waiting for paperwork to apply for a $2.5 million grant the government wrote into this year’s budget. (The government gave $9.5 million to USADA in 2016.)

The witnesses testified to a continued lack of uniformity in sex-abuse policies among the NGBs, despite efforts that date to at least 2013. Some publish full lists of banned coaches and athletes. Some distribute them only to members of the organizations. Under terms of a recently passed law to protect athletes, the NGBs are supposed to be audited randomly by the SafeSport center, but that project is hamstrung because resources do not exist.

Meanwhile, the role of the USOC in overseeing it all remains confusing.

Brought up more than once was an exchange during a deposition for a sex-abuse lawsuit in which a USOC lawyer was asked if protecting athletes was a top priority for the federation.

“The USOC does not have athletes,” answered Gary Johansen — speaking to the reality that, except during the Olympics, athletes technically fall under the umbrella of their individual sports.

Lyons said that mindset will change.

“We do hold ourselves responsible, and if there’s a failing, it’s from not properly exercising our authority,” she said.

One of the best examples of the USOC using that authority has been the top-to-bottom housecleaning it demanded from USA Gymnastics.

Most news about the federation’s changes, however, has been delivered in long news releases. Wednesday marked the first time Perry has made public comments since her hiring in December. She left after the hearing without taking questions.

“I’m glad you’re here today, but a lot of people have wanted to hear from you since you took the job,” Dingell said.

But Dingell didn’t really like what she heard — “I don’t hear a sense of urgency,” she said — and she was not alone.

“As compared to how much money a district attorney’s office has, or how much money a Title IX office has at a school, it’s not in the same ballpark at all,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic swimmer and outspoken critic of the USOC’s efforts, said of the SafeSport budget. “Shellie desperately needs more money.”

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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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USOC CEO, Olympic sports officials to testify at sexual abuse hearing

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Acting U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Susanne Lyons and leaders of USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, USA Volleyball and USA Taekwondo will testify at a May 23 U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on sexual abuse within the U.S. Olympic community.

Lyons, USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry, USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey, USA Volleyball CEO Jamie Davis and USA Taekwondo executive director Steve McNally are confirmed to testify.

Shellie Pfohl, the CEO for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which handles cases of sexual misconduct in the Olympic and Paralympic community, is also scheduled to testify.

“We are concerned about the potentially pervasive and systemic problem of sexual abuse across the U.S. Olympic community,” Rep. Greg Walden, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Oversight and Investigations subcommittee chairman Gregg Harper said in a joint statement, according to Reuters. “The institutions we’ve called to testify have long been entrusted with the safety and well-being of America’s athletes.”

The hearing follows a bipartisan investigation into the USOC, 48 national governing bodies and Michigan State University related to the management, handling and prevention of sexual abuse.

On April 18, four Olympic sports athletes, including 2012 Olympic champion gymnast Jordyn Wieber, testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing on the role of national governing bodies in protecting athletes from abuse.

Wieber is one of more than 100 gymnasts who said they were sexually abused by Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State gymnastics team doctor who pled guilty to sexual assault and has been sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. Sexual-abuse crimes have also recently occurred in other Olympic sports.

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