Saying problems with the U.S. Olympic Committee go far beyond sexual assault, a representative for athletes told a Senate committee Tuesday that they want more leverage in disputes with the USOC, including an independent inspector general to investigate complaints and assigned advocates for athletes to ensure rights are being respected.
The athlete’s demands came during a hearing where lawmakers slammed the leaders of Olympic sports for the handling of sexual abuse cases in the past and accused them of current efforts to dodge financial liability for misdeeds
“We believe athlete sexual abuse is a symptom of broader systemic issues that must be addressed to empower and protect U.S. athletes moving forward,” Han Xiao, who heads USOC’s athlete advisory committee, told the subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee that’s looking into hundreds of sexual assaults in gymnastics, swimming and taekwondo. “Sexual abuse is the canary in the coal mine.”
The Colorado Springs-based Olympic Committee is trying to move on from months of turmoil that followed the trial and conviction of gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who is serving 60 years in prison on allegations that he molested as many as 250 gymnasts. Amid the scandal, the Olympic Committee’s CEO Scott Blackmun resigned and an internal investigation was launched to review what was done to stop the abuse. Blackmun was asked to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, but declined for medical reasons.
The sports leaders got a chilly reception in the Senate committee Tuesday where Connecticut’s Democrat Sen. Richard Blumental accused the USOC of “prioritizing medals and money over athlete safety.”
“I am concerned that there has been continuing failure,” Blumental said.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein also blasted the Olympic committee, saying, “Indeed, it appears these institutions undertook massive public relations campaigns to protect themselves rather than rallying to victims and their families.”
This month, the committee named golfing executive Sarah Hirshland as its new CEO. While Hirshland has an extensive background in high-dollar sports marketing, she has little experience in handling misconduct in sports. Hirshland was in the audience for the hearing but didn’t testify.
Congress, which charters the Olympic Committee, moved this year to mandate reporting of alleged sexual assaults and is considering changes that would give the Olympic Committee sweeping new powers over sports governing bodies.
The Olympic Committee, meanwhile, is leaning on its Denver-based Center for SafeSport as a vehicle to stop abuse and help victims. The center has been deluged by abuse complaints, with more than 1,000 logged during its first 15 months of operation.
Xiao said SafeSport has other challenges.
“SafeSport could be derailed by the stories we’re hearing suggesting that the rights of the accused are not being properly protected,” Xiao said. “In other cases, we hear that SafeSport complaints are being used by staff against athletes as another way to exercise power over them.”
The Olympic Committee’s interim boss, Susanne Lyons told lawmakers she wants taxpayer cash to boost the SafeSport effort. She asked for $10 million for the center, saying Congress has offered financial backing for other Olympic initiatives, including the U.S. Anti-doping Agency, which is charged with keeping steroids out of the games.
“Although the Olympic Committee elected to provide the bulk of the Center’s funding in an effort to get the Center launched as soon as possible, it would be preferable for the Center’s independence if it had additional sources of funding,” Lyons said.
Lyons highlighted SafeSport and offered her apologies to lawmakers.
“The Olympic Community failed the people it promised to protect and I apologize to every one of them and their families,” Lyons said.
SafeSport has Senate allies, including Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who praised SafeSport for rapidly “investigating 1200 allegations and issuing sanctions against 300 individuals.”
Xiao called on the Senate to give athletes more tools to issue complaints and whistleblower protection for athletes speaking out against coaches or leaders of governmental bodies. Xiao said the Olympic movement needs an investigator who is independent of the USOC, such as an inspector general, to receive complaints confidentially, investigate cases, and report on necessary corrective action. Xiao also urged Congress to establish athlete advocates to provide confidential legal advice to athletes and fight for their rights and interests full time.
In an interview after the hearing, Xiao said recent efforts to eliminate sexual abuse and manipulation of athletes have failed to create the fundamental changes that are needed. “I don’t think there has been a sea change,” he said.
Instead, a sometimes hostile relationship between athletes, coaches and administrators has slipped through new procedures instituted since 2016.
“I think it’s a failing of the entire system, the way it’s set up,” Xiao said.
Kerry Perry, head of USA Gymnastics and John Engler, interim president of Michigan State University where Nassar worked, also testified, each apologizing for the Nassar case.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have now held a half-dozen hearings on the fallout from the Nassar case, but apart from requiring sports to report sexual assaults, few changes have been made.
Congressional changes to the Olympic Charter could be months away. Lyons said the Olympic Committee is working to examine its relations with sports governing bodies and is awaiting the report of an independent investigation. Lyons asked Congress to hold off on changes until they get the reports.
“The Olympic Committee encourages Congress to look closely at the recommendations that may come,” she said.
Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner wasn’t at Tuesday’s hearing, but said he wants his Senate colleagues to keep up pressure to clean up Olympic sports.
“The gross acts of abuse that hundreds of athletes suffered is truly sickening, and it remains clear that there needs to be reforms and continued investigations into how this took place for so many years and what can be done to stop it from ever happening again,” Gardner, who sits on the wider Commerce Committee, but not the subcommittee that held the hearing, said in an email.
While abuse allegations have swirled around Olympic sports for years, USA Gymnastics is just now implementing its program to curb sexual assault.
“Beginning this season, all members must be SafeSport certified,” Gymnastics boss Perry told lawmakers.
Lawmakers also pounded the sports leaders for trying to dodge legal liability for Nassar’s misdeeds.
Perry dodged questions on a Gymnastics move to dismiss some Nassar-related suits.
“That was before my time,” she said.
Lyons acknowledged that the Olympic Committee has asked courts to dismiss the USOC as a defendant in Nassar suits.
“The courts will have to determine if we have legal liability,” Lyons said. “We do have social and ethical liability.”
Tom Ramstack in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.