The U.S. Olympic Committee and the sports it represents pledged to make changes that would put an end to the sexual assaults that have marred the athletic organization.
But, beyond the promises and apologies that came from the two-day meeting at The Broadmoor that wrapped Friday, specific strategies and systemic fixes won’t be coming quickly.
The Olympic Committee is still waiting on an outside review ordered last year in the wake of charges against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. New USOC boss Sarah Hirshland said that report, probing how the Colorado Springs committee handled years of allegations against Nassar might not be complete until the end of the year.
Another big priority for the USOC, a review of its governance and its relationship with the 50 sports governing bodies it sanctions, won’t be ready until 2019.
The Olympic Committee also is facing intense pressure from the outside, with a congressional inquiry and several lawsuits claiming the organization failed to protect athletes.
It’s all made for a tense limbo for the nation’s most renowned sports brand.
In a Thursday speech to the assembly, Hirshland told the crowd of more than 500 that recovery from the scandal has just begun.
“I know that I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know all the questions to ask,” said Hirshland, who started at the Colorado Springs headquarters last month, replacing Scott Blackmun, who resigned in April. “I intend to earn your trust over time. And I will indeed return it in kind.”
Hirshland and the committee’s board huddled behind closed doors at the luxury resort’s conference center for much of the assembly, pondering what kind of change is needed to address the hundreds of athletes who have reported sexual abuse and repair a system that enabled their predators.
Meanwhile, a group with the same goal — but a vastly different philosophy on how to achieve it — hosted an open house in a suite at The Antlers Wyndham Hotel downtown.
“We sent invitations to a bunch of people — media, and athletes, coaches, friends — and I hope they come over and vent, as they should,” said August Wolf, a track and field athlete who competed in the 1984 Olympics and, this year, founded Olympians Rising. The grassroots nonprofit of about 100 strong is calling for a complete overhaul of the USOC and maintains that ousters and replacements at the top represent little more than a “shell-gaming” of heritage players.
“All these people who are on the board of the USOC, they’re all sport insiders. They’re all intimately conflicted,” Wolf said. “If you’re not in this ecosystem, it’s like a factory town that really smells bad, and the people in it just think this is how it’s been. And it’s wrong.”
Olympians Rising also wants major reform in the USOC financing structure that endows leaders and star coaches and forces its predominantly child athletes to turn to crowdsourcing to pay for competition and travel expenses.
Such an imbalance creates an “ecosystem” ripe for abuse, said Dia Rianda, a USA swimming age group club coach and head of the Monterey County Aquatic Team.
“I think that what we’ve come to in American sports … is that we have a system in place where Congress has allowed a nonprofit monopoly to exist,” said Rianda, whose friction with the USOC began when she was fired by the former national team coach for USA swimming in 2012 for reporting inappropriate behavior of another coach, who ultimately received a three-year ban from the sport.
“The primary stakeholders — who are the athletes, and most of those being minor-aged children — have no say. They’re being exploited, financially in a huge way … and often physically, sexually.”
Rianda, who is part of the Olympians Rising movement, said that even after the scandals came to light, predators have continued to operate within the ranks of Team USA’s core and feeder operations. The safety net in place isn’t doing enough to identify, remove and punish them, and the response does not bode well.
“In swimming right now, there are 204 coaches on the banned list, between Safe-Sport and USA swimming lists, and we estimate that there are thousands more that are out there that are in need of being banned,” she said.
“Positive and great things can exist … in the Olympic and Paralympic movement, but there’s a whole culture of bending, breaking and not following the rules that’s allowed to happen, so all of these rules that are on paper and all of these ideals and goals that are being strived for … are realistically just window dressing.”
In her address, Hirshland acknowledged the organization needs to embrace transparency, “particularly as it relates to our financial resource allocation.”
“There are questions and concerns about how the USOC spends its money,” said Hirshland, drawing spirited, if scattered, applause, during her Thursday address.
“I cannot promise that we will all agree on that one. But it is our job to explain the choices we make, clearly and simply.”
Fixing what has been described as a “toxic culture” at the USOC and the Olympic sports it oversees will require more than disclosure and dollars, however.
A key step in the USOC’s reparation campaign, on image and ground-level fronts, is beefing up of the Safe-Sport program. Now in its third year of operations, the Denver-based center, which receives complaints and investigates reports of a sexual nature at NGBs and affiliated clubs, is underfunded and overwhelmed.
SafeSport funding is set to double for each of the USOC’s 50 Olympic sports. That money will allow for more staff to conduct investigations and lead additional educational programs. A centralized database of banned coaches also will be expanded, said board member Susanne Lyons.
To keep athletes safe until the organization’s internal inquiries are complete, Lyons said the USOC has begun pushing toward a cultural sea change, a focus on safety protocols and athlete well-being.
“What’s different is … more audits, more frequent, different things on the checklist that didn’t used to be there. There were some immediate changes that were made, new policies, new training things that happened right away,” she said.
“Good progress” has been made on the banned list, and ensuring that anyone who’s been suspended or banned is reported to center for Safe-Sport, which soon will make that centralized list public, Lyons said.
“There’s a number of things that have been happening in the interim period,” she said.
“The longer-term issue of a cultural change, that will take time, and I think it’s at the root of a lot of the issues.”
“We sent invitations to a bunch of people — media, and athletes, coaches, friends — and I hope they come over and vent, as they should.” August Wolf, a track and field athlete who competed in the 1984 Olympics and founder of Olympians Rising