Judges, organizers and even some riders were caught off-guard when a well-known equestrian judge got booted from one of the year’s biggest horse shows.
Turns out, his name had been flagged by the U.S. Center for Safe-Sport, the new Denver office charged with overseeing sex-abuse cases in Olympic sports, because he had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sex assault five years earlier, in a case that had nothing to do with minors or anyone in his sport.
Had he been at the show near Philadelphia working as a trainer, his case might not have been discovered. Judges in the horse-show world receive maximum scrutiny in an effort to protect athletes from sex abuse, but the federation that oversees the sport on the Olympic level does not apply those standards to most trainers and coaches, who have the most day-to-day contact with riders.
Robert Bielefeld’s case offers an eye-opening window into some unintended consequences of the U.S. Olympic movement’s mission to combat sex abuse in its ranks. The mission took on more urgency after a sex-abuse scandal rocked USA Swimming in 2010, then metastasized into headline news in the wake of physician Larry Nassar’s abuse of nearly 300 gymnasts, including some on the U.S. Olympic team.
The mission also has pressured administrators in dozens of niche sports, many of whom don’t have the skills to craft sex-abuse-prevention policies.
Bielefeld was upset and disappointed by his ouster from the Memorial Day event, said Devon Horse Show manager David Distler. “He thought it was done, finished, and it just kind of came up again out of nowhere.”
Bielefeld did not respond to requests for comment. In April 2013, court records say, he called a male worker at a hotel in Lexington, Va., into his room to fix his TV, pushed him onto the bed, exposed himself and began masturbating.
The worker called police. Bielefeld pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor assault and one count of attempted sexual battery and got a six-month suspended jail sentence, 12 months of probation and fines. Once the probation was complete, the case was closed, and Bielefeld was free to work as an equestrian judge, in which he had no direct contact with riders or minors.
Bielefeld also works as a trainer at a Florida horse farm. Had he not also been a judge, his case might not have resurfaced.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation requires about 2,400 people to undergo background checks, most of them administrators. Excluded are trainers and coaches because they are considered independent contractors. The U.S. has about 2 million horse owners. About 140,000 are professional trainers.
Now federations are being encouraged to increase the people on whom they conduct background checks, said Dan Hill, spokesman for the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
The USEF now is proposing to vet coaches and trainers, spokesman Julian McPeak said.
The most horrific sex-abuse cases in the sport’s history involved renowned trainer Jimmy A. Williams. In 2016, his name was stripped from USEF’s lifetime achievement trophy after dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct. Williams died in 1993 at age 76. The Chronicle of the Horse and The New York Times ran stories featuring dozens of interviews from Williams’ victims, who all described being kissed, groped and worse.
USEF’s decision to strip Williams’ name from its most prestigious award came more than two years after the federation bolstered its SafeSport policies in the wake of the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Olympic Committee’s call for overhauls of sex-abuse policies for all sports organizations under its umbrella.
Though most athletes in Olympic organizations will never come close to making the Games, the USOC oversees them all and decided the federations must operate under essentially the same rules. Implementation of those rules varied by sport.
The USOC’s goal was the 2017 opening of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a clearinghouse to report and investigate suspected abuse and mete out suspensions and other punishment. But SafeSport polices much more than those on the Olympic path. The USEF oversees 29 breeds and disciplines in the horse-show world; only four are on the Olympic or Paralympic program. U.S. Sailing and the U.S. Tennis Association have similar makeups.
SafeSport gets 20 to 30 calls a week but has only 17 full-time employees, including four investigators, plus eight contract investigators. So some cases slip through the cracks. But Bielefeld had a well-known criminal past in a tight-knit sport with an active blogging community. SafeSport was alerted to his case and placed him on interim suspension while it investigated. USEF was alerted and contacted the horse show, whose organizers ousted Bielefeld.
His name was on the interim banned lists of SafeSport and the USEF for about a month. An arbitrator agreed to remove Bielefeld’s name from the lists after a hearing, but the matter is still open pending a final determination by SafeSport.
“There’s an expectation from the public, from parents and from the sports community that athletes are going to be protected,” Hill said. “If there’s a conviction five years ago, and something were to happen again, people would be saying, ‘How come someone with a conviction is allowed to be in this environment and have authority over individuals?’ And in a way, a judge does.’”