The Colorado Springs-based U.S. Olympic Committee, in an unprecedented move Monday, filed papers to revoke the charter of USA Gymnastics, blackballing the governing body from Olympic sport.
Slammed with scores of allegations of sexual assault against athletes, including the case of former gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar, the governing body over gymnastics has faced increasing pressure for reform. The move by the USOC is considered the “nuclear option,” the strongest step it can take under its congressional charter.
Essentially, the Colorado Springs committee will exercise direct control over gymnastics in the absence of a governing body.
The proposed ban means the Olympic Committee will have to develop a new organization to oversee the sport.
“Seeking to revoke recognition is not a conclusion that we have come to easily. In the short term, we have to work to ensure that USAG gymnasts have the support necessary to excel on and off the field of play,” the Olympic Committee said in a statement. “We are building plans to do just that.”
Sarah Hirshland, who took over as the Olympic Committee’s CEO in August, issued a letter telling gymnasts that they “deserve better” than the scandal-ridden gymnastics organization has been able to deliver.
“While each of you has overcome adversity in different ways, some facing unimaginably terrible situations, everyone now faces the difficult reality of belonging to a national organization that continues to struggle to change its culture, to rebuild its leadership and to effectively serve its membership,” Hirshland wrote.
The Olympic Committee has been rocked for the past year by sexual assault scandals beyond gymnastics. Meanwhile, the Olympic Committee has moved to tighten its control over gymnastics, requesting and receiving the resignations of its board of directors.
The shake-ups at gymnastics continued this month as the governing body’s interim leader, former U.S. Rep. Mary Bono, resigned after just four days on the job. She had replaced Kerry Perry, who lasted less than a year on the job after replacing Steve Penny.
USA Gymnastics officials released a statement defending their reform efforts. “USA Gymnastics’ board was seated in June 2018 and inherited an organization in crisis with significant challenges that were years in the making. In the four months since, the Board has done everything it could to move this organization towards a better future,” the statement said.
“We immediately took steps to change the leadership and are currently conducting a search to find a CEO who can rebuild the organization and, most importantly, regain the trust of the gymnastics community.”
By revoking the USA Gymnastics charter, the Olympic Committee has effectively banned the organization from sponsoring Olympic athletes. It is an action envisioned by the Amateur Sports Act, but a step the committee has proved reluctant to take.
“Today is only the beginning of an important process for gymnastics in the United States,” Hirshland wrote. “The path is not crystal clear, but our motives are. So, we move forward, committed to ensuring the type of organization each gymnast and the coaches, trainers and club owners who support them, deserves.”
The ban could send shock waves through the rest of Olympic sports even as the committee reviews its relationship with the 50 governing bodies that make up Olympic sports, 28 of which are based in Colorado Springs. USA Gymnastics is based in Indianapolis.
A blue-ribbon panel led by WNBA chief Lisa Borders is examining the relationship between the USOC and the many sports organizations it charters.
That report is due back next year, but Hirshland decided not to wait before making the gymnastics move.
“You might be asking why now?” she wrote. “The short answer is that we believe the challenges facing the organization are simply more than it is capable of overcoming in its current form.”
The USOC has been in turmoil since the trial and conviction of Nassar, who is serving 60 years in prison for molesting as many as 250 gymnasts. Other allegations have surfaced that athletes in Taekwondo, swimming and diving faced sexual abuse.
Amid the scandals, the Olympic Committee’s former CEO, Scott Blackmun, resigned, citing health reasons. An internal investigation, due out this year, was launched to review what was done to stop the abuse. The role of the Olympic Committee also is being litigated, with plaintiffs claiming the organization failed to protect athletes.
Congress is investigating, too, reviewing more than 100,000 pages of documents from Olympic sports on sexual assaults. The Department of Justice is probing whether the FBI mishandled the Nassar case.
The move to ban the gymnastics organization is unlikely to be a quick fix to the Olympic Committee’s woes, however. The move by the USOC triggers a quasi-judicial process that could lead to months of wrangling.
Hirshland worked to assure gymnasts that their sporting efforts won’t be harmed by the proposed change.
“You’re no doubt wondering what this means for you and the gymnastics community,” Hirshland wrote.
“Until the process is completed and a final determination on USAG’s status is made, we will work to ensure that gymnastics training and competitions will continue as usual. I do not know how long the process will take, and we will make every effort to proceed quickly.”