On Friday evening in South Korea, Team USA walked out into the Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang, clad in the cheesy and stylistically questionable matching Ralph Lauren gear we have come to expect over the years.
Luge star Erin Hamlin led the way, waving the American flag proudly. The delegation of 244 freezing American athletes followed, laughing, swaying, and waving while “Gangnam Style” was blasted through the outdoor arena — “Heeey, sexy ladies.” Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, waved and clapped from a suite, where they were seated just a few feet away from the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It was a surreal scene, to say the least, but also a joyous one — from the look on their faces, it was abundantly clear that, for the majority of the members of Team USA, this was one of the best moments of their lives.
Unfortunately, as I watched Team USA celebrate their moment on the Olympic stage, I couldn’t help but think of the 265 women and girls who were sexually assaulted by former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who served as a trainer for Team USA at four Olympics. Over the past few weeks, about 200 of them gave victim impact statements at sentencing hearings for Nassar, who will spend the rest of his life behind bars. Nearly all of the survivors mentioned Nassar’s involvement with the Olympics in their statements.
“I couldn’t believe I was in the presence of an Olympic doctor,” said Madison Rae Margraves, when she recalled how honored she felt to have the opportunity to be treated by Nassar.
“There’s no way an Olympic doctor would do this,” Kathleen Lovelette remembered thinking, as she tried to convince herself that Nassar’s “medical treatment” was legitimate, and not sexual assault.
“I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there were unnecessary and disgusting,” said 2012 Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney.
Just hours before the opening ceremony, the U.S. Olympic Committee held a press conference in front of a gaggle of reporters in Pyeongchang eager for the institution to answer questions about the Nassar case.
USOC Board of Directors Chairman Larry Probst opened the press conference by addressing the victims directly. “[T]he Olympic system failed you and we are so incredibly sorry,” Probst said. “Words cannot express the anger that the board and leadership of the United States Olympic Committee and me personally feel about the human toll that Larry Nassar’s abuse has taken on these young women and their families.”
Probst went on to say that the board was commissioning an independent investigation into the USOC, which would be released publicly, and that everyone — including USOC president Scott Blackmun, who is not in Pyeongchang because he is recovering from surgery — will keep their jobs until the investigation is complete and more information is known. But board member Anita DeFrantz said she was “pretty confident” that the investigation will show that Blackmun “did a great job,” and Probst said “we think that [Blackmun] did what he was supposed to do and did the right thing at every turn.”
To say it’s tough to take the USOC’s commitment to fixing its failures in the Nassar case seriously is a gross, gross understatement. In fact, in light of what we know of the USOC’s actions in the past, particularly in the eight years since Blackmun became CEO, a healthy dose of skepticism is the only proper reaction.
Honestly, it’s nearly impossible to list all the ways in which we know the USOC has failed its athletes when it comes to sexual abuse over the past few decades. But we know that it’s far from a problem that starts and ends with Nassar, or even with USA Gymnastics. According to the Washington Post, more than 290 coaches and officials associated with the United States’ Olympic sports organizations have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct since 1982, most notably in USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, USA Taekwondo, and U.S. Speedskating.
Among other things, we know that Nassar’s victims gave victim impact statements for a total of nine days in two courtrooms over the past few weeks, and a USOC representative wasn’t present for a single one. (Probst now says this was a “mistake.”) The USOC is only now — two and a half years after USA Gymnastics first parted ways with Nassar due to reports of his sexual predation, and more than a year after the first criminal charges were brought against Nassar — beginning to reach out to the victims who were members of USA Gymnastics, an organization that the USOC, and the USOC alone, certifies and provides with power.
The USOC only started requiring criminal background checks for its coaches and doctors in 2014. Four years ago. We know that when the IndyStar published its report in 2016 about horrific, systemic failures in the way USA Gymnastics handled complaints of sexual abuse, the USOC immediately defended USAG as “one of our most active, supportive and concerned partners” when it comes to preventing sexual abuse.
In 1999, the USOC said it couldn’t ban coaches convicted of sex crimes — yes, convicted of sex crimes — unless it first offered hearings to the abusers in question, because, according to the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, all athletes, officials, and coaches have a right to a hearing before they are banned for misconduct.
In 2014, the USOC was notified that USA Taekwondo was allowing Marc Gitelman to continue to coach for the program despite allegations that Gitelman had been getting his underage athletes drunk and raping them — allegations that USA Taekwando believed. But the USOC did not step in, and Gitelman continued to coach children and work in close vicinity to his victims until he was criminally convicted in 2015 of sexually abusing two of his athletes. Two days after his conviction, USA Taekwondo banned him. Under the USOC’s nose, USA Swimming has also been ravaged with sexual abuse complaints; the organization didn’t ban coach-student relationships until 2013. That was also the year that the USOC first required all of its non-governing bodies (NGBs, such as USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming) to put in place minimum standards for athlete protection. But even now, implementation and enforcement of those standards is all over the map, since the USOC continues to operate with a strictly hands off approach.
It’s hard to fathom this many systemic failures in an organization that oversees the best athletes in the world. But it makes so much more sense when you read this exchange, reported by the Washington Post, in a deposition regarding the USOC’s (mis)handling of sexual abuse complaints from USA Taekwondo athletes in 2014. Stephen Estey, the lawyer for a victim, asked USOC Associate General Counsel Gary Johansen if it was a “top priority” for the USOC to protect its athletes from sexual abuse.
“The USOC does not have athletes,” Johansen replied.
Estey, naturally, pushed for more information, and Johansen’s response was incredibly revealing.
“Walk me through that,” Estey said. “You send athletes to the Olympics, but they’re not your athletes?”
“Why is it they’re not your athletes?”
“They’re nominated by the National Governing Bodies to the USOC.”
When asked what Team USA refers to, if not athletes, Johansen replied: “That’s a branding terminology. . . . It’s intellectual property.”
Even knowing all of this, I still got chills when I saw Team USA march out onto the track at the Olympic Stadium. I’ll still hold my breath as they ski or sled down hill at impossible speeds, and attempt to cover my eyes when they propel themselves into the air for a triple jump. My heart will break when they falter, and my eyes will fill with tears when they triumph.
The athletes deserve to live out their dreams, and to soak in every moment of Olympic glory, from opening ceremony to closing ceremony, perhaps with a few medals sprinkled in between. And we can — and should — cheer them on.
But we must remember that this isn’t just a game; these are lives that are on the line — not just the athletes who are competing this fortnight, but the millions upon millions of children watching who believe in the power and pageantry of the Olympics.
The good news is that the silence has been broken, and progress is being made. There is, at long last, a national center for SafeSport, which is granted the authority to investigate sexual abuse and misconduct complaints in all 47 Olympic sports organizations. And last week, Congress passed a bill that is supposed to help protect athletes from sex abuse by making those in Olympic and amateur sports mandatory reporters of sex abuse, and Congress is investigating the USOC’s handling of the Nassar case. However, SafeSport still has an extreme lack of funding and a skeleton staff, and the bill that congress passed didn’t come with any funding — that was removed in the House of Representatives.
Ultimately, the race has only just begun; there’s a long way to go until the Team USA brand can be trusted again.