Olympics

‘A moment of reckoning.’ Senators release Olympic abuse investigation, propose reform

After an 18-month Senate investigation found the U.S. Olympic Committee failed to protect athletes from sexual abuse, a pair of senators wants to empower Congress to dissolve the committee.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, released Tuesday the results of their investigation, which found widespread failure by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and other institutions to keep athletes safe.

The investigation was launched in 2016 in the wake of The Indianapolis Star’s reporting on sexual abuse allegations against Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team doctor. Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison last year after several former members of Team USA came forward about sexual abuse.

“It remains shocking to me, disillusioning to me that there were people who had a responsibility to protect those athletes who did not do it,” said Moran, who chairs the Senate Commerce subcommittee that has authority over amateur sports.

“The statement of the survivors that sticks with me is, ‘Why was there more than one of us who encountered Larry Nassar?’”

During a phone call with reporters, Moran and Blumenthal spoke about the need to change the culture in both the committee and the governing bodies.

To that end, the two lawmakers have introduced a sweeping bill that is intended to enact new accountability measures for the Olympic committee and require greater oversight of the National Governing Bodies it designates for each sport.

“We’re now at a moment of reckoning, one year before the next Olympics,” Blumenthal said.

The bill would require the committee to establish clear abuse reporting requirements and would impose greater liability for the committee and governing bodies. It would also enable Congress to dissolve the U.S. Olympic Committee through a joint resolution if it fails to upholds its duty to protect athletes.

“They will be held liable, they will be held accountable,” Blumenthal told reporters. “They will be disbanded by Congress if they fail to uphold their responsibilities.”

The legislation would increase athletes’ level of representation on the Olympic committee’s board. It would also require the committee to pay $20 million annually to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the organization tasked with policing abuse allegations in Olympic sports organizations.

The bill would also require the committee to published a list of barred coaches and other individuals to prevent them from working with amateur athletes.

McKayla Maroney, one of the Olympic gymnasts to come forward about Nassar’s abuse, applauded the legislation.

“Olympic athletes dream of standing on the podium and listening to our national anthem. We have the right to expect that our United States Olympic Committee will protect all athletes, especially children. This bill recognizes that USOC failed us and put child athletes at risk. Congress should pass this bill as soon as possible and hold the leadership of USOC accountable for their failures,” Maroney said in a statement.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has already taken some steps toward reform, including a leadership change last year.

The committee’s CEO, Sarah Hirshland, said in a statement Tuesday that improving athlete safety and increasing accountability “are central to the initiatives and reform that we began in February 2018 — these are ongoing today. This legislation is consistent with that approach and we applaud Congress for their continued work on this critically important issue.”

However, Hirshland warned that the legislation also includes provisions that “could result in unintended consequences and disruption for athletes in operational reality. We look forward to working with Senators Moran, Blumenthal and others in Congress to address these areas, make athletes more safe, and make Olympic and Paralympic organizations in the U.S. as exceptional as the athletes they serve.”

Moran and Blumenthal referred Hirshland’s predecessor, former U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun, to the Department of Justice last year for investigation for potentially making false statements to Congress about the Olympic committee’s response to accusations against Nassar.

It was reported in July that Blackmun received a $2.4 million severance package from the committee after resigning in the face of the scandal. Blumenthal said Blackmun should not receive that money.

Blumenthal repeatedly said that Nassar should not be seen as a lone wolf, a point that’s emphasized in the investigation’s executive summary.

“Nassar committed his criminal sexual conduct by himself, but multiple institutions responsible for keeping amateur athletes safe — including the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and USAG, the National Governing Body (NGB) designated by USOC to administer amateur gymnastics — failed to adequately respond to credible allegations against Nassar,” the executive summary states.

“At the same time, even as Nassar’s case captured the headlines, it was hardly the only case of unchecked criminal behavior in amateur Olympic sports. His case underscored serious allegations of sexual abuse made in USA Taekwondo, USA Swimming, U.S. Figure Skating, and other sports — and the failure on the part of those NGBs to ensure the health and safety of their athletes.”

Moran said that the patchwork of organizations has enabled them to avoid responsibility for protecting athletes in the past, a problem the bill seeks to address.

“A challenge has been, who’s in charge? And there’s hundreds of organizations involved in the U.S. Olympics,” he said.

Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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