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Olympic athletes tell senators they want an independent watchdog for USOC

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - July 24, 2018 - Updated: August 9, 2018

The headquarters of the United States Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette – file)

Saying problems with the U.S. Olympic Committee go far beyond sexual assault, a representative for athletes told a U.S. Senate committee Tuesday they want more leverage in disputes with the Colorado Springs-based USOC, including an independent inspector general to investigate complaints and assigned advocates for athletes to ensure rights are being respected.

“We believe athlete sexual abuse is a symptom of broader systemic issues that must be addressed to empower and protect U.S. athletes moving forward,” Han Xiao, who heads the USOC’s athlete advisory committee, told the subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee that’s looking into hundreds of sexual assaults in gymnastics, swimming and taekwondo. “Sexual abuse is the canary in the coal mine.”

The 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. Amid the scandal, the Olympic Committee’s CEO Scott Blackmun resigned and an internal investigation was launched to review what was done to stop the abuse.

Earlier this month, the committee named golfing executive Sarah Hirshland as its new CEO. While Hirshland has an extensive background in high-dollar sports marketing, she has little experience in handling misconduct in sports.

Congress, which charters the Olympic Committee, moved this year to mandate reporting of alleged sexual assaults and is considering changes that would give the Olympic Committee sweeping new powers over sports governing bodies.

The Olympic Committee, meanwhile, is leaning on its Denver-based Center for Safe Sport as a vehicle to stop abuse and help victims. The center has been deluged by abuse complaints, with more than 1,000 logged during its first 15 months of operation.

In prepared testimony, Xiao said SafeSport has other challenges.

“SafeSport could be derailed by the stories we’re hearing suggesting that the rights of the accused are not being properly protected,” according to Xiao’s written testimony. “In other cases, we hear that SafeSport complaints are being used by staff against athletes as another way to exercise power over them.”

Xiao called on the Senate to give athletes more tools to issue complaints and whistleblower protection for athletes speaking out against coaches or leaders of governmental bodies. Xiao said the Olympic movement needs an investigator who is independent of the USOC, such as an inspector general, to receive complaints confidentially, investigate cases, and report on necessary corrective action. Xiao also urged Congress to establish athlete advocates to provide confidential legal advice to athletes and fight for their rights and interests full-time.

Xiao was set to be joined at the hearing by the Olympic Committee’s acting boss, Susanne Lyons, who remains atop the organization until Hirshland starts next month. Kerry Perry, head of USA Gymnastics and John Engler, interim president of Michigan State University where Nassar worked, are also expected to testify.


Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette