A congressional push to revamp the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs gained steam and a busload of supporters Monday.
A group of Olympians and the judge who sentenced former sports doctor Larry Nassar to prison are backing a bipartisan measure led by Colorado lawmakers to create a panel to examine reforms at the U.S. Olympic Committee, which has been rocked by a sexual assault scandal and the revelation that top officials there knew about Nassar’s crimes when he was USA Gymnastics’ doctor, but they made no effort to stop him.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., was joined at a news conference by Michigan Judge Rosemarie Aquilina and the athletes to announce she’s introducing a measure in the House Tuesday that mirrors legislation introduced in January by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who also attended the event.
“No number of gold medals are worth putting the health and safety of our athletes at risk,” said DeGette, head of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations panel. “When the very body that Congress created to care for our athletes becomes more concerned about winning and protecting your brand than the athletes themselves, it is time for a change.”
The proposed 16-member commission will consist of at least half Olympians or Paralympians, and they’ll have subpoena power.
“The one thing that I have heard over and over again is that, for this to work, athletes have to have a say,” DeGette said.
Said Gardner: “Congress and we will have failed the Olympic athletes if we don’t take action to correct the wrong that, unfortunately, has lasted for far too long, a problem created by inaction over a number of decades.”
The legislation comes six months after a congressional report recommended reviewing the law governing the USOC, which is chartered by Congress.
“We need, here and now, in this moment, to flip the script, to ensure that the safety of athletes is valued over money and medals, and that’s what this legislation will do,” said Aquilina, who allowed more than 100 gymnasts to tell their stories in her court before handing down what amounted to a life sentence for Nassar.
“If the USOC wants the benefit of offering the best athletes in the United States with all the prestige that goes with that, they must also carry the burden of protecting athletes in every single way,” she said. “Without change, without voice, without protection, athletes are still subject to sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse, financial abuse. This will continue until there’s oversight and the athletes have equal voice and equal power.”
USOC spokesman Mark Jones told The Associated Press that the USOC will “continue to work constructively with both the House and the Senate to create healthy and safe environments for the American athletes we serve.”
The USOC board is meeting in Chicago this week to review its management and examine reforms set in motion by new CEO Sarah Hirshland. While Hirshland has touted her efforts to protect athletes and move the Olympic committee past the scandal, critics claim she’s done too little and seems too eager to put the sexual assault of athletes in the rear-view mirror.
DeGette said the proposed commission will evaluate whether the national governing bodies for each Olympic sport are responsive enough to athletes and whether the U.S. Center for SafeSport has adequate resources to handle reports of athlete mistreatment. It also will determine whether the USOC’s board is diverse enough.
“I want to be clear,” DeGette said. “We are not here to advocate disbanding or breaking up the U.S. Olympic Committee. That is not the goal of this commission. We want to improve it. We want to refocus it. We want to make sure that it’s doing the job it was created to do, and that’s to empower and to serve our nation’s top athletes, to put their safety and well-being above everything else.”
Gardner lauded the bipartisan support for the proposal.
“Congress is taking the right steps — outside of politics, but inside of solutions to find the right answers to protect our sports, to protect our athletes and to protect our leadership in the Olympic games,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, said he also supports the effort.
“This bill provides a balanced framework for Congress to support the U.S. Olympic Committee in protecting its athletes and to bring forward a new era of American excellence in the Olympic Games,” he said in a statement.
Olympians at the news conference Monday included Nancy Hogshead-Makar, BJ Bedford, Keith Sanderson and Eli Bremer, along with Paralympic gold medalist Sarah Will.
“I’m very, very supportive of this,” Bremer said. “I think this is absolutely the right legislation. This gives us nine months to study the Olympics with a group of experts and athletes, after which we’re going to have the ability here to run some new legislation.”
The Gazette’s Tom Roeder and The Associated Press contributed to this story.