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USA Gymnastics revamps Safe Sport policy amid abuse scandal

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USA Gymnastics is overhauling its Safe Sport policy in hopes of providing better protection for athletes and clearer guidelines for coaches, parents, trainers and club owners on what constitutes abuse.

The organization released the new policy on Wednesday after consulting with a wide spectrum of people inside and outside the sport. The group included child welfare advocates and survivors of emotional and sexual abuse, including one athlete abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar.

USA Gymnastics President Li Li Leung called the update the foundation of the embattled organization’s efforts to foster a safe and healthy environment for all stakeholders.

“From this point forward, we are pledging to become a community of education, prevention and care,” Leung said. “We need to and can do better for our athletes and our community as a whole.”

The update is designed to clear up what the organization described as “gray areas,” including what the boundaries are for one-to-one contact between a coach and/or a trainer and an athlete. The new policy states that all one-to-one interactions should be “observable and interruptible,” including massages, icing and taping, stretching and any other physical contact.

Other guidelines prohibit electronic and social media communication between a coach and an athlete without a second adult being included in the exchange and banning personal gifts and other “grooming” activities. Background checks for employees at member clubs will now fall in line with those required by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The new regulations cover male and female athletes across all USA Gymnastics disciplines and mark the latest in a series of moves by the organization to better police itself in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal surrounding Nassar. The longtime doctor at both USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University is now serving an effective life prison for child porn possession and molesting young women — many of them female gymnasts — and girls under the guise of medical treatment.

The policy also provides explicit courses of action when it comes to reporting various types of abuse, including what behavior dictates mandatory reporting. It states that “any adult under the jurisdiction of USA Gymnastics who becomes aware of an incident of child abuse or sexual misconduct involving a minor must immediately report the incident to law enforcement and the U.S. Center for SafeSport.”

The U.S. Center for SafeSport will handle claims of child abuse, sexual misconduct and any criminal charges involving a minor. USA Gymnastics will handle nonsexual misconduct complaints and any violations of the preventative policies. Leung stressed that “every athlete will be believed” when coming forward, meaning the organization will take each complaint seriously.

“When we say every athlete is believed, we will take the report and investigate it to best of our abilities,” said Shelba Waldron, USA Gymnastics’ director of safe sport education and training. “That means talking to witnesses, talking to club owners. The person who has case (filed) on them is notified and do have opportunity to speak to that.”

USA Gymnastics has beefed up its Safe Sport center in an effort to deal with the volume of claims. The organization is looking for a vice president of Safe Sport to work with its five Safe Sport staff members and uses three outside independent investigators.

Leung said the update brings the organization further in line with the recommendations put forward by a former federal investigator in the summer of 2017. USA Gymnastics has now implemented 48 of the more than 70 recommendations made by Deborah Daniels.

The organization is putting an emphasis on education. It will hold seminars at both regional and national congresses that will detail the new guidelines. USA Gymnastics also plans to host webinars focused on what constitutes emotional abuse.

Waldron said the organization used “national standards” when it came to defining emotional misconduct, which it describes as “repeated and severe non-contact behavior that includes any act or conduct described as emotional abuse under federal or state law. There are three forms of emotional misconduct: verbal, physical, and acts that deny support.”

USA Gymnastics is fighting for its survival as it tries to escape the shadow the Nassar case has cast over a program considered the gold standard of the U.S. Olympic movement. It filed for bankruptcy last fall in an effort to reach settlements in the dozens of sex-abuse lawsuits it faces and to avoid its potential demise at the hands of the USOC.

Leung, who took over in March, hopes the new policies will serve as an important step in rebuilding trust in the organization while helping fulfill her pledge to making USA Gymnastics more “athlete-centric.”

MORE: Nassar judge, Olympians back USOC oversight push in Congress

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U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials change format, name host city

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The U.S. Olympic men’s and women’s gymnastics trials will recombine next year, to be held in St. Louis, after they were split up for the Rio Games.

St. Louis hosts the meet June 25-28 ahead of the Tokyo Games that open July 24. The trials will be three weeks after the annual U.S. Championships. Both the men’s and women’s Olympic teams will be named in St. Louis. Specific selection procedures are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

New USA Gymnastics CEO and president Li Li Leung said Tuesday that she is “pretty confident” that USA Gymnastics will remain the sport’s national governing body to put on trials. Leung, appointed in February, came on after U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland said in November that the USOC was seeking to revoke USA Gymnastics’ recognition.

In February, Leung said she has already spoken to Hirshland and that “both sides are committed to working closely to resolve the decertification request.” Hirshland called Leung “an accomplished professional” in a statement and expressed optimism about the direction of the organization under Leung’s leadership.

In 2016, the men’s trials were held in St. Louis in June in conjunction with the women’s national championships. The women’s trials were held two weeks later in San Jose, Calif.

“We think it’s the best of both worlds, to have them competing together,” Leung said Tuesday.

Most of the 2016 U.S. Olympians have announced retirements and/or not competed since the Rio Games. The only actively competing returnees are Simone Biles and Sam Mikulak, who won their fifth U.S. all-around titles last year.

Gymnastics trials will again overlap with track and field trials (June 19-28) and swimming trials (June 21-28).

This season’s U.S. Gymnastics Championships are in Kansas City from Aug. 8-11. The world championships are in Stuttgart, Germany, from Oct. 4-13.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials Sites
2016: St. Louis (men) and San Jose, Calif. (women)
2012: San Jose
2008: Philadelphia
2004: Anaheim
1996 and 2000: Boston
1992: Baltimore
1988: Salt Lake City
1984 and 1980: Jacksonville, Fla.
1976: Los Angeles (women) and University Park, Pa. (men)
1972: Des Plaines, Ill. (men) and Long Beach, Calif. (women)
1968: Long Beach, Calif. (women) and Los Angeles (men)
1964: Kings Point, N.Y. (women) and San Fernando, Calif. (men)
1960: West Point, N.Y.

USOC fires official as Larry Nassar report released

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DENVER (AP) — An independent report details a toxic pattern of bureaucratic paralysis among Olympic leaders who reacted slowly, if at all, after they knew Larry Nassar was suspected of molesting young gymnasts.

From the top office at the U.S. Olympic Committee to FBI bureaus in three cities to what was essentially an unchecked, rogue operation at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas, nobody stepped in quickly enough to stifle Nassar’s crimes, the report concludes.

That delay ultimately gave Nassar more than a full year to abuse gymnasts after the first allegations surfaced.

The USOC swiftly fired sports performance chief Alan Ashley in the wake of Monday’s release of the 233-page report from the law firm Ropes & Gray. One of its conclusions was that neither Ashley nor Scott Blackmun, who resigned in February as CEO of the USOC, elevated concerns about Nassar’s alleged abuse when they first learned of them from USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny in July 2015.

And an email from Penny notifying Blackmun and Ashley of Nassar’s decision to step down from his volunteer position in September 2015 — after allegations had surfaced but before they’d become widely known — was deleted from both executives’ accounts. The report suggests Blackmun was fearful his email system may have been vulnerable to Russian hacking.

“One thing we’ve learned from this experience is that these types of situations should be escalated,” said Susanne Lyons, a board member who served as acting CEO earlier this year. “Transparency is important.”

The report says the USOC; USAG; Nassar’s employer, Michigan State; and the FBI all failed to protect athletes. The USOC’s failures led to an approximately 14-month period — July 2015 to September 2016 — during which Nassar was allowed to continue to molest girls despite the allegations.

“While Nassar bears ultimate responsibility for his decades-long abuse of girls and young women, he did not operate in a vacuum,” the report says. “Instead, he acted within an ecosystem that facilitated his criminal acts.”

Nassar is serving decades in prison on charges of child pornography and for molesting young women and girls under the guise of medical treatment; many of his accusers testified in heart-wrenching detail at his sentencing hearing in January.

The USOC commissioned the report shortly after the testimony. More than 100 people were interviewed, including some survivors of sexual abuse. But a sizable number of Nassar victims — including 180 being represented by attorney John Manly — refused to participate because Manly didn’t believe the report was completely independent of the USOC.

“That being said, it is a stinging indictment of the highest levels of the leadership of the United States Olympic Committee for their role in the cover-up (of) the largest sex-abuse scandal in the history of sports,” Manly said.

Among the conclusions:

  • Blackmun never reported the allegations to either the USOC board or anyone on his staff. When asked about the Nassar case by chief security officer Larry Buendorf, who had received word separately from Penny, Blackmun told Buendorf he was aware of the issue and did not seek further guidance. Blackmun, who voluntarily answered questions for the report, explained he understood the seriousness of the Nassar allegations but because they involved an “insider” — Nassar was well-respected and had worked with USAG for nearly 30 years — the case was “especially sensitive.”
  • While Penny repeatedly tried to get the FBI to investigate, one of his key objectives was to keep the allegations from spilling into the public, to avoid “sending shockwaves through the community,” as he said in a conversation with an FBI agent. Because of that, very few inside USAG knew the extent of Nassar’s crimes — a factor that curtailed efforts to control him.
  • Despite Penny’s contacts with law enforcement, the report concludes “the investigation appears to have languished … for over seven months” in the FBI’s Detroit office. USAG later took the allegations to the FBI’s Los Angeles office, but not until the Indianapolis Star report detailing Nassar’s abuse came out in September 2016 did that office take action.
  • The Texas training center where much of the abuse occurred was run by Bela and Martha Karolyi, whose penchant for churning out gold medalists earned them virtual carte blanche without having to answer to parents, individual coaches, or USAG and USOC authorities. The harsh regimen they imposed left athletes afraid to report injuries and almost completely beholden to Nassar, who “had broad latitude to commit his crimes, far from the gymnasts’ parents and unimpeded by any effective child-protective measures.”

The backdrop of it all was a U.S. Olympic bureaucracy that had grown reluctant to police the sports organizations it oversaw. When Blackmun took over the USOC, its relationships with the national governing bodies (NGBs) were at a low point. He spent years trying to repair the relationships and the USOC “chose to adopt a deferential, service-oriented approach” to NGBs, according to the report.

“In this governance model, the USOC exerted its broad statutory authority and monetary influence over individual sports primarily for the purpose of encouraging success at the Olympic Games, effectively outsourcing any decisions regarding on-the-ground child-protective practices to the NGBs,” the report states.

That, in the minds of many of the survivors, was the most critical shortcoming: In short, the USOC valued medals over the athletes who won them.

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MORE: Olympic medalist no longer on USA Gymnastics suspended list