More than 290 coaches and officials associated with U.S. Olympic sports organizations have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct since 1982, according to a Washington Post review.
As the number of women accusing former Olympic gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar of sexual assault has continued to rise this year — surpassing 130, including at least five former Team USA members — victims, lawyers and members of Congress have directed outrage at USA Gymnastics, whose chief executive resigned in March.
While the Nassar case has captured public attention because of the renown of a few of his accusers, it is far from an isolated instance. The problem of sexual abuse in Olympic sports organizations extends well beyond the confines of one sport, or one executive.
More than 290 coaches and officials associated with America’s Olympic sports organizations have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct since 1982, according to a Washington Post review of sport governing-body banned lists, news clips, and court records in several states. The figure spans parts of 15 sports and amounts to an average of eight adults connected to an Olympic organization accused of sexual misconduct every year — or about one every six weeks — for more than 36 years.
The figure includes more than 175 officials convicted of sex crimes and those who never faced criminal charges and have denied claims. The latter include Andy Gabel, an Olympian and former U.S. Speedskating president banned from the sport in 2013 after two women alleged he forced himself on them, and Don Peters, the 1984 Olympic gymnastics coach banned after two women alleged he had sex with them when they were teenagers.
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The Nassar case — in which USA Gymnastics officials waited five weeks, after first hearing a complaint, to report Nassar to law enforcement in 2015, and then didn’t inform Michigan State, where he continued to work with young athletes until August 2016 — is the latest in a series of well-publicized incidents in which Olympic sports organizations committed errors that left children at risk.
Why does this keep happening? Interviews with dozens of officials in Olympic sports and a review of thousands of pages of records produced in lawsuits filed by abuse victims highlight a culture in which limiting legal risk and preserving gold-medal chances have been given priority over safeguarding children.
Until this year, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) resisted calls for changes to a federal law that has, at times, inspired flawed responses by Olympic officials to suspicions of abuse. Top officials at other Olympic sports organizations delayed reforms by balking at common child-protection measures as costly and intrusive. And Olympic sports lawyers — victims’ advocates blame one influential firm in particular — have instilled an unusually strong fear of lawsuits that routinely arises when new child-protection measures are proposed.
“We’re hearing all about gymnastics, but the problems in gymnastics are equally as prevalent in every other sport,” said Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer and abuse victim who founded Safe4Athletes, a nonprofit that works to combat abuse. “I think people are starting to understand the complexity of this, and how this stays in the system. … It stays in the system because of governance, because of the people in charge.”
In the past three years, the USOC has improved safety policies significantly across Olympic sports organizations. Criminal-background checks and abuse-education programs — common in other youth-serving organizations since the 1990s — have been mandatory since 2014. This year, a new nonprofit agency, the U.S. Center for SafeSport, took over dealing with suspected abuse in Olympic sports.
USOC board chairman Larry Probst and chief executive Scott Blackmun declined interview requests for this story. In an interview, USOC board member Susanne Lyons praised Blackmun for changes he has pushed since taking over in 2010.
“I think we all feel, in hindsight, how could we have let this take so long? … All up and down that food chain, there were failures in the system that I think everyone regrets,” Lyons said. “The best we can do now is just go forward aggressively.”
In a year marked by long-quiet allegations of harassment and assault against powerful men erupting into public view, the Nassar case has brought unprecedented attention to abuse in Olympic sports. In the past few weeks, Olympic gymnasts McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman have both gone public with their allegations of abuse by Nassar.
In speaking out, these women have highlighted ingrained, cultural aspects of Olympic sports organizations — attitudes and customs they’ve observed in leadership as well as in local coaches and clubs — that present challenges to the current reform effort.
“Most Olympic sports are set up in a way that is not great for protecting children. You have people at the higher levels who really, really want to win,” said AnnMaria De Mars, a technology executive and mother of Olympic judo fighter and mixed-martial-arts star Ronda Rousey. “And then you have lots of young women spending lots of time with older men.”
The bureaucracy that oversees Olympic sports in the United States is, essentially, a pyramid.
At the top sits the USOC, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with average annual revenue of about $230 million.
Underneath the USOC are 47 Olympic and Pan American national governing bodies — one for each sport; Olympic insiders call them “NGBs” — many also headquartered in Colorado Springs.
Many of these sport NGBs, as a fundraising mechanism, offer memberships that allow local coaches and clubs across the country the opportunity to use the prestige of an association with the Olympics to attract students. These coaches and clubs form the bottom of the Olympic sports pyramid, and they work with at least 11 million children.
Before last year, USA Gymnastics and its chief executive, Steve Penny, were considered by other Olympic executives to be leaders in the effort to combat abuse.
In August 2016, when an Indianapolis Star investigation revealed USA Gymnastics executives had dismissed allegations of abusive behavior against four coaches who went on to sexually assault children, the USOC defended USA Gymnastics as “one of our most active, supportive, and concerned partners” in abuse prevention.
Then a series of events raised concerns in Congress.
In September, dozens of women started coming forward accusing Nassar of assault. In March, court documents released in a lawsuit in Georgia showed that Penny had never undergone formal training on abuse prevention, even though he personally handled all abuse complaints for USA Gymnastics.
The documents also included a letter, sent from a previous CEO of USA Gymnastics to top USOC leaders — including Blackmun — alerting them that some Olympic organizations were ignoring abuse prevention entirely in 1999, nearly 15 years before the USOC first required basic abuse-safety measures.
Days later, the USOC board urged Penny to resign.
The documents released in March included depositions from two former USA Gymnastics officials who testified that aspects of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act — the federal law that governs Olympic sports organizations — inspired USA Gymnastics’ policy that required a written allegation of abuse from a victim or victim’s parent before the organization could respond.
“I personally would like to have been more aggressive, but it wasn’t an option,” said Kathy Kelly, a former vice president at the organization. “The Amateur Sports Act … clearly states that we, the NGB, or any other NGB, cannot restrict anybody’s ability to pursue participation in Olympics …”
The Ted Stevens Act has played a recurring role in mishandled Olympic abuse cases — including prior incidents at USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo — because portions of the law intended to protect athletes’ rights to compete have impeded attempts by victims and advocates to quickly bar coaches suspected of abuse from working with children.
In March, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., proposed legislation that would amend the Ted Stevens Act to make everyone who works under Olympic organizations mandatory reporters of suspected abuse and require stronger abuse-prevention measures throughout these organizations. The bill passed last week, after incorporating changes recommended by the Senate Commerce Committee.
Starr, the victim advocate and former Olympic swimmer, said she and others have been suggesting changes to the Ted Stevens Act since 2011, after a similar abuse crisis at USA Swimming. Top USOC leaders, including Blackmun, have been reluctant to support legislation, she said.
The USOC’s ability to influence has its limits. Among the sport NGBs, some have leaders less inclined to take direction from Colorado Springs.
In 2012, as word started to circulate that the USOC was considering making background checks and education programs mandatory, officials in two sports pushed back.
In a December 2012 letter to Blackmun, U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) official F. Skip Gilbert vehemently objected to the USOC’s attempt to mandate abuse-prevention policies, calling it “misguided at best” and saying it “equates to the same bullying and harassment charges that the USOC wants to mandate that we keep out of our sport.”
Gilbert, who no longer works for the USTA, declined to comment. In a statement, the USTA said the organization had its own abuse-prevention program in 2012.
In a 2012 email to Blackmun, USA Softball official Ron Radigonda expressed concerns about the expense of criminal-background checks, which cost about $20 each. Mandatory background checks for all adults who work with children at local organizations could affect “competitive market share,” wrote Radigonda, who lamented that USA Softball had recently lost business in one state because a local official there decided to require background checks for umpires.
“Is there really a need for a top-down one-size-fits-all USOC approach to these issues?” Radigonda wrote.
Radigonda did not return messages requesting comment. USA Softball declined to answer questions about its background-check policies.
Within the sports more closely associated with the Olympics, any lack of vigilance is particularly dangerous, experts believe. In June, when former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels released her review of USA Gymnastics’ abuse-prevention practices, she devoted an entire section to cultural factors that leave children at heightened risk of abuse in elite gymnastics.
Young athletes are often desperate for the attention and approval of coaches who — particularly in individual sports — have an unusual amount of control and power over athlete success. So-called “helicopter parenting” is discouraged; famed Olympic coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi prohibited parents from visiting the camp where the USA Gymnastics women’s team trained.
“Everything about this environment, while understandable in the context of a highly competitive Olympic sport, tends to suppress reporting of inappropriate activity,” Daniels wrote.
Troubles at the pool
In 2013, USA Swimming commissioned its own report after a series of abuse cases across the country, including the conviction that year of Rick Curl, a Washington, D.C.-area swim coach, for his sexual relationship with an underage swimmer in the 1980s.
As Victor Vieth, a former sex-crimes prosecutor, researched USA Swimming’s abuse-prevention policies, he noted with surprise that romantic relationships between athletes and coaches were condoned until 2013.
Something else struck Vieth as he interviewed adults throughout elite swimming, from USA Swimming officials in Colorado Springs to local coaches and parents across the country: a reluctance to use the word “children.”
“Constantly, it didn’t matter who we were talking to. … They always called them ‘athletes,’ ” Vieth said. “We really wanted them to focus on, you’ve got 320,000 children in your organization, and you need to see them first as children before you see them as athletes. There really was the mentality of the possibility that this could be the next gold-medal winner at the Olympics, and that mentality was not just among the coaches and the people running the groups, it was among the parents themselves.”
In 2010, as USA Swimming proposed a mandatory abuse-education program for all coaches, John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association — essentially, a coaches union — argued against the measure, which ultimately was approved.
“Educate about what? Does anyone need education to know what a pedophile act is? The only education that needs to take place is parents having the courage to go to the police,” Leonard wrote in an email to USA Swimming CEO Chuck Wielgus produced as evidence in a lawsuit.
Leonard, still executive director of the coaches association, did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Fear of lawsuits
The 47 sport NGBs are diverse in many ways — USA Swimming annually brings in nearly $35 million and has 94 employees; USA Team Handball brings in about $500,000 and has four employees. But many have one thing in common: their lawyers.
The Olympic sports legal market is dominated by a small number of attorneys and firms in Colorado Springs and Indianapolis, where most of the governing bodies are clustered. Victim advocates blame these lawyers and their emphasis on avoiding potential litigation that repeatedly arises during discussions of abuse prevention in Olympic sports.
In 2011, the USOC started discussing a sex-abuse prevention handbook. Circulating education material is a basic safety measure experts have recommended since the 1990s; the Boy Scouts of America started doing it in 1986.
As Olympic officials discussed their handbook in 2011, however, several mentioned a common concern: the handbook could get them sued by victims, who would use it as evidence Olympic officials knew abuse was a problem but weren’t doing enough to stop it.
“While several NGBs expressed that the handbook sets the proper focus … there is also a perception that publishing the handbook will increase their risk of legal liability,” Malia Arrington, a USOC executive in charge of abuse prevention, wrote Blackmun in a December 2011 memo made public by the USOC this year in communication with the Senate.
Child-protection experts expressed bewilderment that, in 2011, organizations working with children would debate the legal risks associated with abuse-prevention material.
“Litigation happens all the time. Anybody can sue anyone for anything. That’s a fact of life,” said Stephen Forrester, an attorney and director at the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Lawyers also have stepped in when Olympic officials have tried to act swiftly to prevent coaches suspected of abuse from working with children. In 2014, a USA Taekwondo disciplinary panel recommended an immediate lifetime ban of Las Vegas coach Marc Gitelman after three women came forward accusing Gitelman of abuse.
USA Taekwondo leaders ignored the recommendation, however, after the organization’s lawyer — Stephen Hess, of Colorado Springs — raised the concern that Gitelman might sue, in part because the hearing panel didn’t allow him to cross-examine his accusers, violating his due-process rights under the Ted Stevens Act.
Hess declined to comment. USA Taekwondo banned Gitelman in 2015 after he was convicted of three sex crimes in California, in connection with the same allegations.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar — a three-time gold medal Olympic swimmer, civil-rights attorney and advocate for stronger abuse prevention in Olympic sports — blames one firm in particular for this fear of legal risk: Bryan Cave, an international firm whose Colorado Springs office has made its attorneys the most influential legal minds in American Olympic sports.
At one time or another, Bryan Cave has represented 27 of the 47 Olympic NGBs, and it serves as outside counsel to the USOC. Blackmun, the USOC CEO, is a former partner at the firm. Bryan Cave partner Rich Young helped write the World Anti-Doping Code, the rules that police drug cheating in Olympic sports globally.
In an interview in the firm’s Colorado Springs office last December, Young declined to answer questions about specific cases and said he and his colleagues have led the way in the effort to make Olympic sports organizations safer for children.
“Over the years, the lion’s share of our time representing NGBs in this area has been prosecuting abusers … and in drafting rules to help protect athletes,” Young said.
In March, after more than a year of delays, the U.S. Center for SafeSport opened in Denver. The nonprofit is supposed to operate as a rough equivalent of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which polices drug cheating in Olympic sports. The Center for SafeSport is tasked with disciplinary investigations of abuse and will also regularly evaluate safety policies at Olympic organizations.
The delays, the USOC has said, were caused by difficulties raising money, and it’s unclear if the amount raised — about $25 million for the next five years — will be enough for the potential workload.
The Center for SafeSport has responsibilities similar to a college Title IX office, which investigates gender-discrimination cases on campus. As a comparison, the University of Maryland’s Title IX office has a full-time staff of seven to cover a population of about 50,000 students and faculty who live mostly on campus or nearby. The Center for SafeSport has a full-time staff of nine and four contract investigators to cover a population of at least 13 million athletes, coaches and officials that is spread across the country.
The Center for SafeSport can act, however, only when it gets a report. The front lines of abuse prevention, USOC officials acknowledge, will remain the hundreds of thousands of local clubs and coaches affiliated with Olympic organizations, and the officials who oversee those sports communities.