New USOC boss: Fixing issues behind athlete assaults will take time

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - September 19, 2018 - Updated: October 8, 2018

Sarah Hirshland (Photo courtesy of USGA)

The new CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee said the culture that allowed sexual predators access to athletes is changing, but fixing the issues that led to attacks on gymnasts, swimmers and other competitors will take a long time.

The attitude is different now, said Sarah Hirshland, on the job less than a month. There’s urgency and focus. But changing the nation’s highest profile sports organization entirely means dealing with 122 years of tradition and the bureaucracy that’s held together disparate organizations representing 50 sports.

One thing is clear: As hundreds of athletes and sports leaders gather in Colorado Springs for the annual Olympic Assembly Thursday, sexual assault rather than gold medals will be atop the agenda.

“This will be a very different assembly,” Hirshland said Monday, as she prepared for two days of marathon meetings that she said could “recalibrate” Olympic sports.

A Colorado native with a quarter century in the sports industry, Hirshland said the assembly seems like something she has been preparing herself for since childhood.

“I have always wanted to commit myself to sports as an industry fundamentally because as a child it is where I saw barriers being broken down,” she said.

She came to the Olympic Committee at the height of the largest crisis it has faced.

The Colorado Springs-based Olympic Committee is trying to move on from months of turmoil that followed the trial and conviction of gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who is serving 60 years in prison on allegations that he molested as many as 250 gymnasts. Other allegations have surfaced that athletes in taekwondo and swimming faced sexual abuse.

Amid the scandals, the Olympic Committee’s former CEO Scott Blackmun resigned and an internal investigation was launched to review what was done to stop the abuse. The role of the Olympic Committee is being litigated in several lawsuits that claim the organization failed its duty to protect athletes.

Congress is investigating, pulling more than 100,000 pages of documents from Olympic sports on sexual assaults and efforts to protect athletes. The Department of Justice is probing whether the FBI fumbled the Nassar case.

And, driven by the scandal, a blue ribbon panel led by WNBA chief Lisa Borders is examining the relationship between the USOC and the many sports organizations it charters.

The assembly, at the Broadmoor, won’t come with a pile of proposed solutions to the woes the USOC faces. Instead, Hirshland is expected to lay out her focus for the Olympic movement in the years ahead.

“The purpose is to give U.S. athletes a healthy safe environment in which they can train and achieve the greatest version of themselves,” she said.

Changing the focus does mean overcoming resistance. Some inside the Olympic movement have worried that the American team could lose its competitive edge if there’s more focus on athlete safety than on winning.

And Hirshland is working to lead change at a time when she is just beginning to meet and understand the players.

“It’s like drinking from a firehose,” she said.

Fixing the culture and ensuring athlete safety are just part of Hirshland’s job.

The Olympic Committee is a big business, with $336 million in revenue in 2016, according to IRS filings.

The nonprofit needs money to continue its mission even as its reputation is hammered by the sexual assault scandal.

“The more revenue you get and the more effectively you spend your dollars, the more you can accomplish,” she said.

Changes are coming, Hirshland said. Getting the 50 Olympic sports to agree to change will be a process, she said. But she thinks all the sports can pull in the same direction if they focus on what they have in common.

“We’re all here for the same reasons and we all serve the same constituencies,” she said.

Much of Hirshland’s work at the assembly, which runs through Friday, involves asking questions. New to the job, she said she needs to listen before she reaches conclusions.

In the CEO role, she sees herself as the steward of an institution that has been a source of pride for Americans racking up 2,827 medals since its first games in 1896.

“It’s an incredibly important institution in the world of sport,” Hirshland said.

It’s that public esteem, she said, that puts the Olympic Committee in a position to change how a nation addresses sexual assault.

“They are societal problems, our job is to try to use sport to set an example for how to fix them,” she said.

Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette