A high-level commission would redesign the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Olympic Committee under a measure proposed by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.
The Colorado Republican’s legislation is the first to emerge since two scathing reports slammed the Olympic Committee for failures tied to the sexual assaults of hundreds of athletes. Gardner’s bill would establish a 16-member panel to investigate the USOC and recommend changes. The panel, to be nominated by Democratic and Republican congressional leaders and to include eight athletes, would carry subpoena power and have nine months to tell Congress what is needed to fix the troubled organization.
“This is an idea where we build from some of the best minds in the country to create an Olympic Committee we can all be proud of,” Gardner told The Gazette in a phone call Tuesday from Washington, D.C.
Gardner sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees the federally chartered Olympic Committee. The USOC’s power over America’s Olympic sports stems from the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act, which 40 years ago granted it exclusive rights to oversee the 48 national governing bodies of individual sports.
Under Gardner’s bill, the panel would determine whether athletes have enough say in the organization, whether the USOC spends its money appropriately and if it has done enough to combat sexual assault.
By assembling a panel of experts nominated by Democrats and Republicans, Gardner said, the committee could overcome congressional battles that have led to gridlock, including the nation’s longest partial government shutdown.
“This is a way to take the politics out of looking into USOC,” Gardner said.
Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky issued a brief statement Tuesday on Gardner’s proposal.
“We appreciate all the efforts of Congress over recent years and will continue to work constructively with both the House and the Senate,” Sandusky said.
Congressional committees last year held a series of hearings on the Larry Nassar case that rocked gymnastics. Nassar, the team doctor, was sentenced to up to 175 years behind bars for sexually assaulting scores of athletes.
Last month, the Olympic Committee revealed its internal investigation into the Nassar case, finding that former CEO Scott Blackmun knew about the sexual assaults for more than a year before taking action.
“Inaction and concealment had consequences: dozens of girls and young women were abused during the yearlong period between the summer of 2015 and September 2016,” the report found.
A subsequent congressional report slammed USOC leaders for worrying more about the Olympic Committee’s reputation, finances and athletic performance than athlete safety.
Gardner’s commission would take a broader look at the Olympic Committee than the earlier probes, which focused primarily on the Nassar case.
“The Commission would need to study matters including reforms to the structure of the U.S. Olympic Committee, whether the USOC board includes diverse members, licensing and funding arrangements, oversight of sports’ national governing bodies, and the recruitment of the Olympics and Paralympics to the United States, among other items,” a summary of Gardner’s bill says.
Gardner said he’s talked over the plan with fellow senators and gained initial approval from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the chamber’s powerful majority whip.
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, has mostly stayed quiet on USOC issues, but he lauded Gardner’s bill.
“After the disturbing reports of abuse within the various Olympic organizations, it is important that we ensure the safety of our young athletes,” Lamborn said in an email. “It is vital to understand the true source of the problems and how to fix them so the Olympic movement can become as healthy and successful as possible.”
Another ally Gardner will need is U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, the Colorado Democrat heading a House oversight panel probing the USOC’s problems.
DeGette told The Gazette last month that the USOC needs to change its culture, but she said she doubted whether the Olympic Committee would take meaningful steps to make those changes.
DeGette didn’t immediately return calls for comment on Gardner’s proposal.
August Wolf, a former Olympian who now leads Olympians Rising, a group that has been critical of the USOC’s current leadership, said Gardner’s measure has great potential.
“Obviously, who is on the panel is key,” Wolf said in an email. “Past attempts similar to this had wrong people and little changed.”
The USOC has been changing over the past year. Blackmun resigned in February, citing health issues, and Alan Ashley, USOC’s chief of sports performance, was fired after the internal investigation was released last month. Sarah Hirshland was hired in August to take Blackmun’s job and has issued a call for reforms. The USOC’s board of directors also has seen a shake-up, with Susan Lyons taking the gavel from longtime Chairman Larry Probst. It’s the first time women have held the Olympic Committee’s top two leadership posts.
The two new leaders have been creating committees to examine whether athletes have enough say and have hired a new head of athlete safety.
A bigger reform — how the Olympic Committee oversees sports governing bodies — still is taking shape. The USOC commissioned a panel led by Lisa Borders, former president of the Women’s National Basketball Association. Hirshland told The Gazette last week than an initial report from that group is due soon.
The USOC has been called to testify before congressional committees over the Nassar scandal, but it traditionally has shied from taking a stance on proposed bills.
Hirshland last month told The Gazette that the committee will comply with any measures that pass.
Gardner said he takes great pride in having the Olympic Committee call Colorado home, but he wants the USOC to be strengthened so past mistakes aren’t repeated.
“We take great pride in our Olympic athletes and expect nothing other than superior leadership for our Olympic athletes,” he said.