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Sex abuse scandals rock USOC, the nation's most hallowed sports brand

March 3, 2018 Updated: March 4, 2018 at 11:10 am
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Nancy Hogshead of the women's U.S. Olympic swim team dries off at the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Calif., in July 1984. Exact date is unknown. (AP Photo)

Team USA returned from Pyeongchang last week to an Olympic community in crisis.

The scandal now rocking the nation's most hallowed sports brand has roots going back decades, but the shock waves only reached the top in January with the dramatic sentencing hearings for imprisoned former USA Gymnastics doctor and convicted child molester Larry Nassar.

Congressional investigations and internal inquiries were launched. U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun demanded - and got - the resignation of all USAG board members.

But disturbing revelations about sexual abuse in organized sports - and the shakeup in the Colorado Springs-based USOC, which oversees all 47 Olympic national governing bodies - had only just begun.

An explosive report by The Orange County Register excoriated the Olympic swimming program for failing to act on decades of sexual abuse allegations involving almost 600 victims, some of whom were molested in preschool swim programs. The Feb. 16 report concluded that USAS knew for years that predatory coaches operated within its ranks, but chose not to take aggressive action to punish such behavior.

Less than a week later, USA Swimming accepted the resignations of two directors - Club Development Managing Director Pat Hogan and Safe Sport Director Susan Woessner, both of whom were called out in the Register investigation for failing to keep young athletes safe.

Responding to the report in a Feb. 22 letter to members of his organization, new USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey said he was committed to deep change.

"Let me be clear: USA Swimming does not tolerate sexual abuse or misconduct, and I assure you that this organization is facing this extremely serious issue with one very clear goal - protecting children and athletes," Hinchey wrote. "Every day we work hard to get better as an organization. We are never complacent. We want to listen and to hear from you."

And on Wednesday came the surprise announcement from the USOC's chief executive that he was stepping down. Blackmun, who is battling prostate cancer, said he made the decision due to health reasons; the timing, however, also says something else.

While he praised Blackmun's tenure, USOC Chairman Larry Probst said the former CEO's health struggles have made it difficult for the organization to confront the current crisis.

"It's clear to him and it is clear to the USOC board that we need a CEO who can work 24/7 to get the USOC back on track," Probst told The Gazette.

Bridie Farrell, a speed skater who competed in multiple Olympic trials over the past two decades, said that while the announcement is an encouraging sign, it should only mark the iceberg's tip of the fallout if justice is to be done for current - and potential - victims. In the weeks before she went public in 2013 with allegations she'd been abused by teammate and retired Olympic silver medalist Andy Gabel starting when she was 15, Farrell told The Washington Post that Blackmun invited her to meet with him at the organization's Springs-based headquarters. There, the Olympic CEO told her he had no power to punish Farrell's abuser, and if she happened to talk to anyone else with similar complaints, have them contact the USOC, not the media.

"We need accountability at every single level starting with Mr. Blackmun acknowledging his own negligence right through states reforming child sexual abuse legislation to work for survivors," Farrell, now 36 and an advocate supporting child victims' rights in New York, said in an email.

Blackmun declined an interview request from the The Washington Post in connection with Farrell's account. "Scott has a very different recollection of his conversation with Ms. Farrell, but she deserves our support, not our disagreement," USOC spokesman Mark Jones wrote The Post in an email.

As a standout teen swimmer, Olympic hopeful Jancy Thompson was on track for glory, but years of abuse by her coach derailed those plans and - perhaps worse - threatened to destroy her spirit.

"To get him out of my life, I had to give up what I loved. I had to quit swimming. I lost who I was," said Thompson. "I was Jancy the future hopeful Olympic swimmer, and that person died."

The coach Thompson says abused and sexually molested her for five years starting when she was 15, had previous victims - a fact USAS knew but failed to disclose or act on, and revealed in the Register report.

"It's very, very challenging going back and reliving that, but I'm here today as an adult, a mother, a spokesperson and advocate to try and share my experience, not just to share my story but to share education about what some of the red flags are," said Thompson, who now lives in Modesto, Calif., and advocates for child abuse victims, in part, through a website and program called Keep Kids Safe. "From what I went through, I try to educate parents and swim coaches about what to do, about a culture that's unacceptable. Today, I have a voice and I'm doing my best to help people know what to look for, to keep their kids safe."

Overhauling the system, however, needs to start with USOC taking full ownership of responsibility, Thompson said.

"In my case, parent complaints had been made about the coach. They (USAS) said 'We're aware, we have a file.' So why wasn't he suspended? Why was there no formal investigation? Even to this day, they are refusing to acknowledge that he is a predator, and that there are many other coaches like him out there who skirt the law," she said. "Transparency is a huge, huge thing too. USA Swimming is sitting on years of coach complaints. Those need to be brought to the public eye."

A total restructuring needs to happen "at a deep level," she said. That's going to take time, and many more resignations.

"People need to be removed. It's going to take time to start building back up to an organization that can be trusted to protect its athletes," she said. "I think that's going to take USA Swimming - even USOC - being stripped down to almost bare bones."

The financial threat of ongoing and future civil lawsuits - such as the one filed last weeks by Olympic gymnast and Nassar victim Aly Raisman - might help speed up the reformation, said Longmont-based child abuse-consultant and investigator Michelle Peterson.

"She's suing the USOC and USA Gymnastics, going to the next step. That might bring change and I think what I would tell sports programs is, time to wake up," Peterson said.

Unmaking the kinds of dangerous environments and mindsets that can foster such behavior must start close to home. The SafeSport program can and should play a key role in that process, but the policy and its implementation, at all levels, needs major work, said Peterson, who helped develop the SafeSport program for the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association and serves as its coordinator.

"I have a gymnastics club that hired me a few years ago and I mentioned Safe Sport and the owner was like, 'What is that?'" Peterson said. "Just getting that message from the national governing bodies down to the state programs, down to the little mom-and-pop programs is so important. The USOC supports SafeSport and they have it as a policy, but the problem is they don't require everyone to follow it."

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