By Kayla Harrison OLY and August L. Wolf OLY
The strong, dedicated girls and young women of the U.S. gymnastics team who survived the assaults of their team doctor also were victims of a second kind of abuse— the negligence of the U.S. Olympic Committee. The health and safety of the athletes should have been paramount, and instead they were sacrificed to the higher priorities of reducing legal liability and protecting the image and fundraising of the USOC. This is sadly just then tip of the iceberg; the people who allowed these conditions to fester have failed, and failed to fix them.
It is time to clean house.
The case of Larry Nassar, a gymnastics doctor now serving a life sentence for sexual assault amid allegations from more than a hundred female gymnasts he treated, is but the most egregious instance of the USOC’s disregard for Olympic athletes. Dysfunction, neglect and out-of-whack priorities have reigned for years at the USOC, which has been blinded by huge TV contracts and sponsor fees and lulled by a lack of accountability and outside oversight.
The resignation of USOC CEO Scott Blackmun, who learned of the allegations in 2015 and did nothing, is a first step to overhauling this insular and archaic organization. Now his boss, Larry Probst, must join him. To repair the damage done to athletes and to reinstate trust in the organization, we call for senior executives and board members to offer their resignations en masse, and open the door to a new generation of leadership committed to transparency, decency, and to the athletes and coaches whose toil and sacrifice inspire the world.
We say this as Team USA Olympians. Kayla Harrison won gold medals in judo at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympic Games. She founded the Fearless Foundation to support athletes who have been sexually abused. August Wolf competed in the shot put at the 1984 Summer Games and is the founder of U.S. Athletic Trust. We are joined by co- signers, all of them Olympians.
The USOC and some of the 47 National Governing Bodies (NGBs) for individual sports have known of allegations of sexual abuse for decades. Since 1982, almost 300 coaches and officials in Olympic organizations have been accused of sexual misconduct across 15 sports. USA Swimming banned 36 coaches for molesting minors on their teams —yet it kept the list secret. In the past 20 years, 368 gymnasts have alleged sexual exploitation, the Indianapolis Star reported in 2016.
The response to these horrors has been lackadaisical and circle-the-wagons. USA Swimming in 2010 and 2011 declined to pass a policy prohibiting coaches from having sexual relationships with their athletes, despite myriad accusations. The USOC adopted a ban in late 2012, warning NBGs that if they failed to comply they would lose funding (albeit for their athletes). In late 2013, after three women on the U.S. taekwondo team told the USOC board they were raped by their coach, he was allowed to continue coaching for two more years, right up until his criminal conviction.
When athletes complain, the USOC and NGBs have been known to hire lawyers to mount a defense against them. In 2008, a female Olympic swimmer learned that her coach, a few years earlier, surreptitiously had videotaped her and other underage swimmers in their locker room; the executive director of USA Swimming knew this and let the man continue coaching. She filed a complaint, and the USOC hired a law firm . . . to defend USA Swimming against her charges.
Likewise, in 2012 a dozen members of USA Speed Skating told the USOC of physical and emotional abuse by their coaches. Instead of intervening, the USOC recommended a law firm to USA Speed Skating, which retained it for an internal probe; it bought out the coaches’ contracts and never released the findings.
The USOC first convened a special panel on sexual abuse in 2010, got nowhere and retried it in 2014, which led to the creation of the U.S. Center for SafeSport. This group opened only this month and instantly received nine complaints of sexual abuse to investigate. Critics say it lacks independence, investigative powers and the authority to force NGBs to follow their own rules. It must be strengthened.
Our USOC needs a modern makeover, a bipartisan issue both parties can support. We urge the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to form a “truth commission” that includes athletes, Olympic officials, congressmen and outside advocates. Conduct public hearings into how the USOC quashed allegations and failed to protect athletes, and devise ways to empower the new SafeSport program with more investigative clout.
Team USA is a national treasure. Every two years we get to enjoy the best of human ambition, triumph and hard work, in a testament to individual sacrifice and a celebration of the human spirit. Our athletes have earned the right to be safe and sound, to be heard and supported, emotionally and otherwise. We owe them that.
Ms. Harrison (Two time Olympic Gold Medalist in Judo) and Mr. Wolf (Olympian and USOC FOUNDATION Trustee) are joined by these Olympian co-signers:
CAROLINE LIND, 2 time Olympic Gold Medalist in rowing, 2008 and 2012
BODE MILLER, 6 time Olympic Medalist in skiing, including gold in 2010
JIMMY PEDRO, 2 time Olympic Medalist in judo in 1996 and 2004.