Olympic Leaders Face Demands for Change at Colorado Springs Congress
For the U.S. Olympic Committee, this has been a year of investigations, a devastating court trial, apologies and subsequent changes in top management. The organization remains in the crosshairs of Congress and of attorneys who have filed lawsuits for sexual assaults involving hundreds of athletes.
As the USOC convenes its annual congress in Colorado Springs this week with its constituent national governing bodies — the leadership groups that run the individual sports that make up the Games — questions abound as to whether enough has been done to address the gross misconduct that has tarnished the Olympic Rings.
Mississippi U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, who is leading a House inquiry into the sexual assault scandals, said just digging through the reams of paper involved could take months.
“As the Energy and Commerce Committee conducts its review of more than 100,000 pages of documents from the USOC and national governing bodies, we are examining whether their current policies and procedures adequately protect America’s athletes from sexual abuse and whether those policies and procedures are being followed and enforced,” Harper, a Republican, said in an email to The Gazette.
The Olympic Committee last week announced a shake-up atop its board of directors to go along with new CEO Sarah Hirshland.
The new leaders have pledged a new focus that shows outcomes are not measured solely by medals and money.
“We need to remind people that the athletes are the center of our world and the reason why we are here,” said incoming U.S. Olympic Committee Chairwoman Susanne Lyons. “We wouldn’t have an Olympic and Paralympic movement without athletes and sometimes perhaps we get caught up in the operations of the games and everything else and sometimes maybe we lost sight of that fact.”
Colorado Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, who sits on the House panel probing Olympic sports, says the new leaders will have their best chance to change the culture of the organization at the annual assembly, which begins Thursday at The Broadmoor.
“The sexual misconduct scandals from various Olympic sports are still being addressed,” DeGette said in an email to The Gazette. “These tragic stories hit close to home for Coloradans because so much of the Olympic community is located in Colorado or hails from our state. The assembly will provide an opportunity for the new leadership atop the USOC to provide fresh direction for the future while also ensuring that the issues of the past are addressed.”
After the conviction of former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and revelations about sexual assaults in multiple sports, the USOC has plenty to remind it of what is at stake and who is at risk when priorities get skewed:
The Colorado Springs-based organization, which oversees all 47 sports governing bodies, is being sued by sexual assault victims who say the organization played a part in allowing the abuse to occur and continue.
Congress is pushing for reforms and questioning whether the Olympic Committee could have done more to protect athletes.
The U.S. Department of Justice has announced an investigation to determine whether federal investigators flubbed the Nassar case.
At the same time, the USOC is conducting its internal review to determine how Nassar was able to get away with assaults on scores of athletes for more than two decades.
Lyons, who will take over from Larry Probst at the end of the year, said she is “ready to do the work necessary to regain the trust of our entire athlete community, particularly the survivors of abuse who have been speaking up over this past year.”
Saying sorry and rehabilitating an image is one thing, many involved have said, while overhauling a toxic culture is quite another.
The USOC has maintained that that’s where the U.S. Center for SafeSport comes in. The nonprofit center was set up to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct and other potential offenses at Olympic affiliated national, state or local clubs. But in testimony before Congress this year, the center’s chief executive said essentially that it is overwhelmed.
“SafeSport is their baby to fix all of this. It’s their solution. Granted it’s not the perfect solution, but if it’s not what are they doing to fix that part of it?” said Michelle Peterson, a Longmont-based child abuse consultant and investigator who helped develop the SafeSport program for the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association.
In the months after the first charges against Nassar were filed in late 2016, the USOC hired Peterson to run a series of online SafeSport training classes on abuse and prevention, best practices and policies for coaches, parents and club administrations.
“It seemed like there was a spike … in people’s concern. Clubs were like, ‘OK we have to do something,’ ” Peterson said.
Since then, though, the fervor within the organization to institute policies and practices that might lead to a culture shift has seemed to lose steam, she said.
“It just seems like it lost its momentum at some point. I don’t know, maybe people have moved on from Larry Nassar,” Peterson said. “What is their plan? What do they know about what’s working and not working? They’ve had plenty of time to think about this and what message they want to send to the NGBs.”
That message hasn’t translated to practical changes in the way business is done in the clubs or NGBs with which Peterson works, she said.
DeGette says that making SafeSport work means making sure it has enough money. IRS filings show that in 2016 SafeSport raised $1.5 million for its mission of keeping sexual assault out of sports. That’s a pittance when compared to the organization tasked with keeping drugs out of the games. The Colorado Springs-based U.S. Anti-doping Agency raised $19.6 million in 2016.
“I visited the center in late July and met with CEO Shellie Pfohl and SafeSport staff,” DeGette said. “I’m encouraged by the work they’re doing. However, they don’t have the necessary resources to address all the reports and complaints that have flooded in since the #MeToo movement and Larry Nassar scandal erupted in 2016.
“Congress must ensure that the funding for the Center is sufficient to meet its needs. The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, of which I’m the top-ranking Democrat, held a hearing on sexual assault and abuse in the Olympic community this past May. There, Ms. Pfol testified that the center doesn’t have the resources it needs to carry out its mission. … I’m urging my colleagues to keep focusing on that fact.”
There are also problems in getting all the NGBs to buy into the SafeSport concept.
Not all Olympic sports, nor their feeder organizations, have the same relationship with the nonprofit created by the USOC to police its inner workings and ensure athletes’ safety. Such lack of consistency is one of the problems Peterson faces in her role promoting and supporting athlete safety.
“Our NGB, USA Hockey, is fully involved and requires every state to have a Safe-Sport person like me,” Peterson said. “But go over to soccer and it’s not involved, because the NGB doesn’t require the state to get involved. One (soccer) club called me to come help them (create a policy) and they’d never heard of SafeSport.”
Lawmakers say SafeSport alone won’t fix the Olympic Committee’s problems.
DeGette and Harper want cultural change.
“Negligent behavior by institutional leaders enabled monstrous and predatory behavior in USA Gymnastics — and not only there,” DeGette said.
“Athletes in other sports under different national governing bodies have also reported sexual abuse.”
Harper said congressional testimony showed that stopping sexual assault means getting leaders to take the issue seriously.
“Our hearing helped shine a light on some significant gaps in the system, and our investigation continues,” he said.
When asked what she thought it would take to repair the tainted culture of the USOC, inside and out, this year Peterson said real change likely would need to be precipitated by a total shake-up in leadership.
That’s happened, to a degree.
The fact that two women — Chairwoman Susanne Lyons and new CEO Sarah Hirshland — will be in the USOC’s top leadership roles is encouraging, Peterson said. That they both come from within the existing hierarchy is not.
“Having women in these roles and boards is important … but it doesn’t sound like change is coming to the board in the way that it should,” Peterson said.
“Just having someone in the role isn’t enough. Who they are, and any allegiances they might have, also need to be considered.”
U.S. Center for SafeSport COO Malia Arrington has come under fire for her leadership role in a center that touts its independence from the organization that created it. The former compliance attorney for the USOC “didn’t come to the center neutral,” Peterson said.
“She had that relationship with USOC. How can you investigate their coaches if you have that kind of relationship?” she said.
Probst, too, has said he will likely remain active, to some degree, within the international Olympic community after he steps down at the end of the year.
“It sounds like they’re just moving people around,” Peterson said.
Changing that perception could start with the meetings this week. Hundreds of athletes, coaches and sports leaders will join in meetings designed to get individual sports and USOC leaders on the same page.
Lyons, who served as interim CEO before ascending to the head of the USOC board, wants to tell those gathered for the assembly that focusing on athletic victories alone won’t change the culture.
“This isn’t just about medals and money,” Lyons said.
It’s about healthy, safe, well-rounded athletes. And medals and money.
“If we’re doing our job right and enabling and empowering our athletes and they’re training in an environment where they feel safe, they will achieve great heights and that will result in donors and sponsors wanting to support us,” Lyons said. “It will result in success on the field.”