Olympics reform bill passes House,
promising sweeping change after abuse
scandals rocked sports
Sweeping legislation passed by the House on Thursday will have major ramifications for the U.S.
Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
By Rick Maese Oct. 1, 2020 at 2:35 p.m. EDT
The House of Representatives on Thursday passed sweeping legislation that is poised to alter the
sprawling landscape of Olympic sports, including giving more power to athletes and forcing more
oversight of the coaches and executives who have traditionally controlled the sports.
The bill, which easily passed the Senate in August and now awaits President Trump’s signature, will
have immediate ramifications that could prove costly for the cash-strapped U.S. Olympic and
Paralympic Committee. But athletes and their advocates say the biggest impact could be looming a
year or more down the road.
Born out of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the gymnastics world and toppled the leadership at
the USOPC, the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act empowers Congress to
decertify individual sports’ governing bodies and dissolve the USOPC’s board of directors. It also calls
for better athlete representation in governing bodies and more funding for the U.S. Center for
SafeSport, a nonprofit charged by Congress with policing sexual abuse in Olympic sports. Rep. Ted W.
Lieu (D-Calif.), co-sponsor of the House bill, called it a potential “sea change.” “We know from the
Larry Nassar scandal and other scandals that we have to make the entire Olympic system much more
athlete-centered,” Lieu said in a telephone interview.
Lawmakers from both parties have said they hope Trump will quickly sign the bill into law. A White
House spokesman this week declined to comment on the president’s plans.
The bill effectively means that Congress will keep close watch on Olympic organizations, receiving
annual reports and audits, and will be poised to take further action if needed.
“Laws are dead letter and worse than worthless if they are not effectively enforced,” Sen. Richard
Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor in the Senate, said in a phone interview. “So I want to make sure
Congress continues its strong oversight. … If there’s a need for more reform, I will have no reluctance
to advocate more measures. I have no illusions that this legislation is the end of the story or that it’s a
perfect solution. We’ve done our best on this first set of reforms, and I think it’s designed to change
the culture and character of these agencies, as well as the culture of sport.”
Some of the biggest potential changes might not be known for months or longer. The bill calls for the
creation of a bipartisan commission that will conduct a top-to-bottom review of the USOPC and the
complicated system of Olympic sports. The group will report its findings to Congress, which could
result in a more substantial overhaul of the Olympic framework in the United States, scrutinizing
everything from the economic model to the spider web of governance.
“It’s going to send shock waves through the system,” said Eli Bremer, an Olympic modern pentathlete
and outspoken critic of the USOPC. “I think there is going to be a lot of changes that come out of this,
and some pieces will take a bit of time to understand their true impact.”
Bremer is part of the Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOPC, an advocacy group that worked
with lawmakers on the text of the bill, which marks Congress’s most significant Olympic-related
undertaking in years. The Amateur Sports Act was originally passed in 1978, empowering the USOPC,
and was updated and expanded in 1998. “The entire system back then was around $1 million, not
really big,” Bremer said of the 1978 legislation. "Now it’s probably half a billion to a billion with all the
[national governing bodies]. It’s time to start rethinking the system.”
Congress would appoint the 16 commission members, at least half of whom would be current or
former athletes. The group would begin meeting within 30 days of the last member’s appointment.
The legislation gives the commission subpoena powers to carry out its work and a nine-month
deadline to deliver a full report to Congress. The commission was not a part of the Senate bill when it
was first introduced last year by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Blumenthal. The idea for the
commission was largely developed and added by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Rep. Diana
DeGette (D-Colo.). Critics of the USOPC hope the end result is a more equitable system that better
protects athletes and ensures that resources and revenue aren’t funneled to executives. Olympian
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, another member of the “Team Integrity” committee, said that when the
amateurism model that long ruled the Olympic movement was altered in 1992, “the economic model
never changed.” “All the new money flowing into the USOPC went to the staff, while most athletes
currently live in abject poverty,” Hogshead-Makar said. The USOPC already has taken on reform
measures, many of which are called for in the congressional bill. The organization, which has publicly
remained neutral on the bill, says it is in the midst of “the most sweeping governance reforms in
Since the Nassar scandal, the USOPC has replaced its chief executive and its board chair. It has
boosted athlete representation on its board of directors and committees and has taken on new health
and safety initiatives, including the addition of a director of mental health services to its staff. In a
statement, Sarah Hirshland, the organization’s chief executive, hailed the bill as “a big win in the halls
of Congress” for American athletes. “It will cement increases in athlete representation in the U.S.
Olympic and Paralympic movements, improvements in athlete safety protections, and bolster
transparency and accountability in our system,” she said. “The USOPC board has already approved
two of the most sweeping governance reform updates in recent history, and a third phase is before the
board this fall. This legislation codifies many of those reforms, with the USOPC now positioned to
move quickly to address any outstanding provisions and support the work of the Commission. The
organization will immediately face a challenge funding one of the bill’s cornerstone conditions. The
USOPC must now provide $20 million annually in funding for SafeSport, a significant increase from
its $7.5 million contribution in 2019 and $11.5 million this year.
In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the organization has been forced to reduce its staff
and make other budget cuts. The USOPC was expecting nearly $200 million this year from the
International Olympic Committee for its share of U.S. media rights for the 2020 Summer Games.
That money now will not arrive until the conclusion of the Tokyo Games, which have been
rescheduled for next summer. If those Olympics cannot take place, it would have a crippling effect on
the USOPC and most Olympic-related organizations in the United States. But funding concerns aside,
the legislation promises to spark both immediate and long-term reforms for a system designed to
support and protect thousands of Olympic and Paralympic athletes.“This is not the end of the road for
saying, ‘How do we create a vibrant system in United States?’ ” Bremer said. “This is the beginning.
This will set us on a path where hopefully in the next two years we have a thorough, thoughtful
process and a system that we’re proud of in every way, that treats athletes ethically, leads to strong
performance on the field and does right by everyone involved.”
Rick Maese is a sports features writer for The Washington Post. He has written about the NFL since
joining The Post in 2009, including three seasons as beat writer for the Washington Redskins.