Olympics reform bill passes House, promising sweeping change after abuse scandals rocked sports
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.”
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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 recent history.”
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.”