Edward Williams has a message for board members of the United States Olympic Committee. It’s a message that could shake Olympic City USA, sometimes known as Colorado Springs.
“I do not believe the board realizes the deep yogurt they are in,” Williams says. “We — the Team Integrity — will help them focus on that.”
He has a point about the yogurt. A 233-page report by Boston-based law firm Ropes and Gray offered a devastating assessment of USOC culture. A U.S. House subcommittee was also highly critical of the USOC.
Williams competed in the 1968 Winter Olympics in the biathlon and serves as co-chair of Team Integrity, which includes dozens of Olympians.
Diver Greg Louganis, tennis great Martina Navratilova and basketball star Nancy Lieberman have joined the group, which also goes by The Committee to Restore Integrity.
“No one can get rid of us,” Williams says of Team Integrity. “No one can shut us down. We’re here to stay.”
Williams sees the USOC as resistant to change, stuck in failed ways of overseeing America’s Olympic movement. Too corporate. Too distant from the needs of athletes. Too obsessed with money. Instead of revolutionary change, he says, USOC leaders are interested in only small alterations.
Team Integrity’s goals are vast. The crusading organization doesn’t want to renovate the USOC. They want to tear it down and begin anew.
“The USOC cannot rehabilitate itself,” leaders of Team Integrity said in a recent manifesto.
The USOC plays a starring role in Colorado Springs, home of a spiffy new USOC headquarters at Tejon Street and Colorado Avenue. This is where Olympians come to live and train, where the journey to gold medals and the applause of the world begins.
It can be so beautiful. A barely known wrestler or shooter can start here and end up wearing gold around her/his neck while the world watches.
A monster named Larry Nassar crashed into the beauty and threw America’s Olympic movement into chaos. Nassar molested dozens and dozens of gymnasts, left USA Gymnastics in deserved shambles, hastened the resignation of USOC CEO Scott Blackmun and inspired those rebukes from Ropes and Gray and the U.S. House subcommittee.
The USOC is still shaking.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Team Integrity’s other co-chair, won three gold medals in swimming at the 1984 Olympics. She’s long been outraged by the priorities of USOC leadership. She’s disillusioned by what she sees as polluting of the purity of the Olympic movement’s five rings — the most famed symbol in sport.
“A small cabal of people used the five rings to enrich themselves,” she says of USOC leadership. “Not for benefit of sports, not for benefit of athletes, but for benefit of themselves. … They made themselves rich and did not make athletes rich or really look out for their best interests.”
Team Integrity is a different organization from the USOC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, which consists of current Olympic hopefuls and advocates for athletes.
In January, Team Integrity released a 12-point statement calling for USOC changes. Among the points:
1. Olympic athletes must make up 50 percent of the USOC board.
2. Athletes must be given stronger whistleblower and retaliation protections.
3. USOC staffing size and compensation must be consistent with other nonprofits.
This mess is jolting. Most of us have our own Olympic moment. Here’s what I mean: We watch, in person or on TV, as an American athlete overcomes gigantic odds to rule the planet, and we share the triumph. It’s a precious and blessedly frequent moment.
I remember standing outside the skiing venue at the 2016 Sochi Olympics where I could watch Colorado’s Mikaela Shiffrin’s run down the side of a Russian mountain.
She came perilously close to falling but fought her way back to balance and gold. Soon, a joyous 20-year-old was wrapped in an American flag. She struggled to hold back tears while thousands of Colorado viewers back home savored the same struggle. Those images stick with us for decades.
But, now, an utterly different image haunts us, and haunts the movement. We see the courtroom face of Nassar, the man who preyed on young Olympic hopefuls. We think of the USOC’s failure to stop him. And we ponder, along with Team Integrity, the future of the USOC.
The American Olympic movement has been severely injured and requires repair. Few, and maybe no one, will argue that point.
What to do next?
Team Integrity will offer plenty of unsettling answers to that question.