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Pressure on Colorado Springs-based USOC builds as South Korea Winter Games open

February 8, 2018 Updated: February 9, 2018 at 10:33 am
photo - The Olympic Ski Jump tower rises behind a sculpture of  a skater just two days before Opening Ceremoniis for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, S. Korea. Photo by Mark Reis, ZUMA Press/The Gazette
The Olympic Ski Jump tower rises behind a sculpture of a skater just two days before Opening Ceremoniis for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, S. Korea. Photo by Mark Reis, ZUMA Press/The Gazette 

There's good pressure, the kind that can weaponize adrenaline, laser-hone focus and fuel medal-winning athletic performances.

And there's bad pressure, where you're on the spot to provide answers you know will never, ever be enough.

On the eve of the 2018 Winter Olympics, the tension thrumming through the U.S. Olympic Committee wasn't coming from just Pyeongchang, South Korea, but the intensifying fallout and scrutiny surrounding sexual abuse scandals back home.

At a press conference last Sunday - the first by the International Olympic Committee at the site of the Games - IOC president Thomas Bach opened by reading from a declaration addressing the decades-long abuse of young athletes by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.

"The IOC executive board is deeply shocked and saddened by the abuse scandal in the U.S. Gymnastics Federation," Bach read. Asked about potential culpability by the IOC, for allowing Nassar to attend Olympic Games, Bach said the question would be better posed to the Colorado Springs-based USOC, which oversees all 47 national governing bodies for Olympic sports, 20 of which are based in the Springs.

"The IOC is not nominating the members of the U.S. Olympic team. This is the prerogative of the national Olympic committee," Bach said, according to USA Today.

In November, the former doctor for Team USA and Michigan State University pleaded guilty to 10 sexual assault charges. Two months later, hundreds of his victims and their loved ones shared impact statements during a series of emotionally charged sentencing hearings that concluded Feb. 5. When his request for "five minutes alone" with the "demon" who'd abused his three daughters was denied by a judge last Friday, one father had to be tackled by security after lunging at Nassar, who will spend the rest of his life in federal prison.

But Nassar's conviction was just the beginning. A growing chorus of voices is now calling for bigger answers - about how his abuse was allowed to happen and continue, about the timeline of knowledge, of allegations of sexual misconduct throughout organized sports and what's being done to keep such crimes from occurring again.

Congress steps in

According to a Jan. 31 report by the Wall Street Journal, USOC officials in Colorado Springs were warned about Nassar - and knew he was under FBI scrutiny - in 2015, but chose not to intervene in USA Gymnastic's handling of the allegations, even after USAG's president told two high-level USOC executives that an internal investigation had uncovered possible crimes by Nassar against athletes. To date, more than 250 victims have come forward alleging abuse in incidents dating back to 1992, when Nassar was a medical student at Michigan State.

In an open letter Jan. 24 to Team USA, USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun said he's aware an "apology is not enough," but laid out his group's plans going forward. Among other steps, the letter threatened to decertify the governing body of USA Gymnastics if there was not a "full turnover of leadership."

By Jan. 31, all USAG board members had stepped down.

Blackmun's letter also said the Olympic committee planned to allocate "substantial funds" to support treatment and counseling for assault victims and survivors and promised that USOC would launch an internal investigation of both USOC and USAG by an independent third party.

The group followed through on that promise this week, announcing that outside counsel Ropes and Gray had been hired to "examine the decadeslong abuse by Larry Nassar to determine what complaints or reports were made to anyone affiliated with USA Gymnastics or the U.S. Olympic Committee, when, to whom, and what was done in response," according to a statement by the Boston-based international law firm. The firm has established a hotline and email address for anyone who can provide information relevant to the investigation.

Inquiries also have been launched at the highest levels of government.

In late January the bipartisan House Committee on Energy and Commerce opened an investigation and issued letters with a list of questions to USOC, Michigan State and three of the Olympic national governing bodies - USA Gymnastics, and the Springs-based USA Taekwondo and USA Swimming, which in 2014 was rocked by allegations, by 19 former swimmers, that they had been abused by their coaches.

In the letter to the USOC, House committee members wrote, "The abhorrent abuses associated with USA Gymnastics, and potentially other sports, are outrageous, and raise concerns about whether the United States Olympic Committee has sufficient oversight mechanisms to protect your athletes from abuse and mistreatment."

Friday marks the deadline for a reply to those questions. It's yet unknown if responses will be made public, either by the House or the responding entities.

"This effort is still in an early stage. Written replies to the letters are not yet in hand; when they are, we'll consider what steps to take next," said Lynne Weil, communications director for U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, who represents the Denver-based 1st congressional district and is ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Investigation is sole focus

An independent review of USA Gymnastics, completed in June 2017 by former federal prosecutor Deborah J. Daniels, managing partner of Indianapolis‐based Krieg DeVault LLP, found that while the organization's Code of Ethical Conduct suggested the promotion of a "safe environment for participants," free of sexual relations or abuse, it does not offer "practical guidelines for how members should and should not interact with athletes." There also was no policy requiring members to report abuse, "much less any sanction for failure to do so," Daniels found.

A new bill awaiting President Trump's signature stands to change that.

The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act, "requires reporting of abuse, sexual or not, of children in amateur sports at any facility under the jurisdiction of a national governing body," said Weil, in an email.

The bill, which was passed in the Senate last November on a voice vote under unanimous consent and had near-unanimous support in the House vote last week, also gives the non-profit U.S. Center for SafeSport, launched by the USOC in 2017, the authority to investigate and punish criminal behavior.

In the wake of New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's Feb. 3 letter requesting the U.S. Attorney General investigate the USOC, two senators - Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, - said they would introduce a resolution that establishes a panel to investigate USOC and USAG.

"There's now significant bipartisan support for establishing a special committee charged with the sole focus of investigating the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics," Shaheen said in a statement obtained by CNN. "There are many disturbing questions that remain unanswered as to how Larry Nassar was able to freely abuse young girls for decades. Because the U.S. Olympic Committee operates under a federal charter and its athletes compete under the American flag, the Senate has a responsibility to deliver answers and accountability."

A critical spotlight has also turned on the FBI, whose slow pace in pursuing reports of Nassar's molestation of three "elite teen gymnasts" was called out in a Feb. 3 story by the New York Times.

According to the Times report, the FBI was alerted to allegations of misconduct by Nassar in July 2015, but chose to pursue a "plodding pace" until September 2016, when an investigation by the Indianapolis Star exposed the doctor's crimes.

Also noted in the story is the agency failure to address claims, by USA Gymnastics, that it had reported the allegations to authorities in July 2015 but "came away with the impression that federal agents had advised them not to discuss the case with anyone."

The Times identified "at least 40 girls and women" who say they were abused by Nassar during that 14 month gap, including some of the serial child molester's youngest accusers.

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