The American Olympic Movement is headed for brighter days.
That is my hope, and my belief.
This hope was at the center of a 30-minute conversation with United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun at his office in downtown Colorado Springs.
Horrors have invaded the movement in recent years. A gymnastics doctor, Larry Nasser, is charged with violating dozens of athletes in his medical care. A taekwondo athlete, Steve Lopez, has been accused of drugging and raping female teammates. Taekwondo coach Marc Gitelman, borrowing the USOC’s words, “illegally and immorally” pushed a teen athlete into a romantic relationship.
And this is just a partial list.
But here’s where the hope arrives:
In March, SafeSport started operations in an office building on Colorado Boulevard in Denver. SafeSport is not concerned about America’s Olympic medal counts. CEO Shellie Pfohl is obsessed with ensuring American athletes are safe from predators/sickos.
Blackmun was the central figure in the idea and the hard work behind funding SafeSport.
“There’s been a real reluctance for athletes to come forward because they’re afraid of the consequences to their athletic careers,” Blackmun said. “By creating a truly independent resource, it’s a safe place for them to go.”
SafeSport will work. The USOC, under Blackmun’s direction, has crafted an evil-fighting organization with a mighty foundation.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) aggressively polices Olympic hopefuls who would sink to cheating, and polluting their bodies, with performance enhancing drugs. Just ask Lance Armstrong about USADA’s determination and aggression. SafeSport can be as effective as USADA.
Understand this truth about Blackmun: He must oversee an American movement that wins medals, or he’ll be looking for a new job.
“We do think our most important deliverable, if you will, is to help American athletes win medals at the Olympic and Paralympic games,” Blackmun said.
“That doesn’t mean, however, that we do it at any cost and using any means. We have the best anti-doping program in the world and if we were just about winning medals, we would not have the best anti-doping program in the world.”
SafeSport, he believes, will function as the best anti-abuse program in the world. Its righteous crusade is desperately needed. In late March, Pfohl talked about her commitment to aggressive, yet fair, policing.
Then she, without prompting, asked a troubling question:
Why did it take so long for SafeSport to travel from idea to reality?
The USOC formally approved SafeSport in 2014, but it took three years for the offices to open.
Why the delay?
Money, Blackmun said.
“I thought this would be a fairly popular project for people to support,” Blackmun said. “I was just wrong. … We just struck out. … But the longer we looked at it, the more we realized, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ We can’t just say, ‘We tried to raise the money. It didn’t work. We’re not going to do this.’”
The USOC doubled its original commitment – from $5 million to $10 million - to fund the first five years of SafeSport. Pfohl said SafeSport investigated 20 cases of abuse in its first month.
So, the future of the movement is looking brighter.
But Blackmun and his organization are still stinging from a long, terrifying list of violated athletes, many young. The USOC was shaken by the allegations.
It’s still shaking.
The USOC has been lambasted for failing to take a more aggressive role in attacking sexual abuse in the national governing bodies (NGBs) that oversee Olympic sports. Scandals invaded USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, U.S. Speedskating and USA Taekwondo.
Blackmun offers a rapid response. Policies were in place, he said, to stop predators. Training was required at NGBs.
“You know, I guess I would say exactly what is it that we could have been doing?” Blackmun asked. “I honestly don’t know what it is. I do know we said we’ve got to improve our game here, we need to make a greater investment, we need to get more serious about it. …
“But I don’t believe there’s a single case, as I look back on the cases, where I look at it and say the USOC should have done more and should have acted differently. I’m not aware of what that is.”
Does he have regrets after all the scandals?
“I have a lot of empathy for all of those victims, but that doesn’t translate into regret in wishing the USOC would have done something different. If I had known we were going to be in the media with the SafeSport issue in the way that we have, I honestly would have guessed that it was positive media because of the positive changes that we’ve made with the introduction of this concept that nobody else in the world has ever implemented.
“The fact that it turns out that the media is negative is surprising to me because I really do think we’ve been doing a good job. I do regret every single incidence of abuse, but as I look at how we’ve tried to respond and address those incidents, I don’t see any serious stumbles on our part.”