The American Olympic movements year of reckoning began in January on the third floor of the Veterans Memorial Courthouse in Lansing, Michigan.
There one after the other, more than 150 women total, over the parts of two weeks walked to the front of Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilinas courtroom to confront the man who had sexually abused them, former U.S. Olympic and USA Gymnastics womens national team physician Larry Nassar. “The scariest monster of all,” former U.S. national team member Mattie Larson said.
The women, Olympians and those who let go of their golden visions before their teens, had once shared a common dream and were now bound by the same nightmare as they stood before Aquilina and the nation during Nassars sentencing hearing. One by one they revealed their most personal secrets, shared their stories of horror, each one hauntingly familiar yet each one unique, in exchange for the promise that Aquilina would grant them the two things they had been denied for so many years — a voice and someone willing to listen to it.
“We, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing,” Olympic champion Aly Raisman told Nassar as he sat in Aquilinas courtroom dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, cowering before the women he once preyed upon. “The tables have turned, Larry. We are here. We have our voices, and we are not going anywhere.”
They were voices that echoed through the rest of 2018 and a year that revealed what Raisman described as the “worst epidemic of sexual abuse in the history of sports” extended beyond a lone predator and single sport reaching all the way into the executive offices in Colorado Springs of the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Swimming and potentially the FBI well as USA Gymnastics Indianapolis headquarters.
“The stories of these woman, have left a scar on everyones heart that is so deep that in many cases have taken your breathe away,” said Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer and founder of Safe4Athletes, an athlete advocacy group. “The pain shared in one courtroom, has to be the loudest single cry of any group of survivors that will never be forgotten, by anybody that even just brushed past a headline about it.”
In the ensuing months, the USOC and many of the 50 national governing bodies for American Olympic sports were rocked by a series of headlines that overshadowed the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, caught the attention of an increasingly alarmed Congress and public, signaled the likely demise of USA Gymnastics and even threatened the USOC in its current structure.
Among those headlines:
*Former USA Gymnastics chief executive officer Steve Penny faces felony evidence tampering charges in Walker County, Texas for allegedly ordering the removal–and possible destruction– of documents related to Nassar from the Karolyi Ranch, the longtime U.S. Olympic and womens national team training center in rural central Texas. Penny has denied any wrongdoing.
*Former Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon in November was charged with two felony counts of lying to police about Nassar.
* USA Gymnastics filed for Chapter 11 protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court after the USOC began proceedings to strip USA Gymnastics of its national governing body status. A decision in that case could come as early as January. USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry was forced to resign in September after nine controversial months on the job. Perrys replacement, former Congresswoman Mary Bono, lasted just four days before resigning under mounting criticism. That was one day more than Mary Lee Tracy managed to stay on the job as USA Gymnastics elite development coordinator. Tracy was fired after improperly contacting Raisman, who is suing the organization.
USA Gymnastics dysfunction was matched only by its tone deafness. Perry briefly attended the Nassar sentencing hearing before shifting her attention to trying to secure a sponsorship deal with Nike. Bono was hired after generating $1.5 million in lobbying fees for a firm that allegedly played a leading role in USA Gymnastics cover-up of Nassars abuse. USA Gymnastics recently asked a bankruptcy judge to approve an agreement in which the NGB would pay a consulting firm $3,000 per day.
*Former USOC CEO Scott Blackmun was accused of lying to a Senate subcommittee by two leading U.S. Senators who referred the case to the Justice Department and FBI.
*A 10 month investigation by Ropes & Gray, a Boston law firm, commissioned by the USOC, revealed how USA Gymnastics, Michigan State and law enforcement dismissed allegations and disregarded or missed red flags pointing to sexual abuse by Nassar dating back to the 1990s. It also details Pennys efforts to enlist the FBI and local Indiana police to provide cover for the Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics handling of Nassar and other sex abuse cases, and how a USA Gymnastics cover-up and inaction by two FBI offices allowed Nassar to abuse perhaps dozens of young athletes in the final 16 months before his misconduct became public.
Blackmun and Alan Ashley, then USOC chief of sport performance, were first notified by Penny of allegations against Nassar in July 2015 they failed to take action or report it to USOC board members, according to the Ropes & Gray report. Blackmun and Ashley also deleted emails related to Nassar, the report said. During the 15 months between when Blackmun and Ashley first became aware of the Nassar allegations and the abuse became public, Nassar continued to sexually abuse dozens of young athletes. Blackmun was forced to resign in February. Ashley was fired earlier this month.
A 233-page report from Ropes & Gray also detailed how negligence and indifference by within USA Gymnastics, the USOC and Michigan State enabled Nassars predatory behavior.
Nassars abuse, the report said, took place “within an ecosystem that facilitated his criminal acts.”
“Our youth sports system has had a love-affair with emotional abuse. Gymnastics embodied that ethos,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic swimming champion and founder of Champion Women, an advocacy group for girls and women in sports.
The extent of sexual abuse in American Olympic sports, however, stretches well beyond gymnastics. The year was full of reminders that Nassar wasnt the only sexual predator lurking in the countrys Olympic ecosystem or that USA Gymnastics wasnt the only NGB that had failed the athletes it promised to protect.
“While Larry Nassar abused elite athletes on a grand scale, the relentless problem of sexual abuse in the Olympic movement has gone unaddressed for decades,” Hogshead-Makar
A Southern California News Group investigation published in February revealed that former USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus and other top USA Swimming officials, board members and coaches were aware of sexually predatory coaches for years, in some cases even decades, but did not take action against them. In at least 11 cases either Wielgus or Susan Woessner, USA Swimmings Safe Sport program director, declined to pursue sexual abuse cases against high profile coaches even when presented with direct complaints, documents show.
The SCNG investigation also found that in the more than 20 years since Wielgus took charge of USA Swimming in July 1997, at least 252 swim coaches and officials have been arrested, charged by prosecutors, or disciplined by USAS for sexual abuse or misconduct against individuals under 18. Those coaches and officials have a total of at least 590 alleged victims, some of them abused while attending pre-school swim classes.
Woessner was forced resign shortly after the SCNG investigation for failing to disclose her physical relationship with former U.S. Olympic and World Championships coach Sean Hutchison prior to a USA Swimming investigation in 2010 and 2011 into allegations that Hutchison was sexually involved with World champion Ariana Kukors. The investigation concluded Hutchison did nothing wrong.
But the USOC funded U.S. Center for Safe Sport in October banned Hutchison for life this year after an investigation by the center found that Hutchison molested Kukors, had her perform oral sex on him and took nude photos of her when she was still a minor.
Hutchison and Bob Bowman, another U.S. Olympic coach, sent former Caroline Burckle, a former Olympic swimming medalist, inappropriate text messages and a voice mail in 2011, according to USA Swimming documents obtained by the SCNG. The texts and voicemail were sent from a phone that belonged to Bowman, the longtime coach of 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps.
A SCNG report in July also revealed that less than three months after then USA Swimming national team director Frank Busch informed Bowman that a letter detailing the incident would “remain on file with National Team,” Busch named Bowman to the 2012 Olympic team coaching staff. Bowman would go on to be the head coach of the 2016 Olympic team. Busch also “highly recommended” Bowman to Arizona State officials before they hired him as the Sun Devils head coach in 2015.
The U.S. Center for Safe Sport banned two-time Olympic taekwondo champion Steven Lopez for life for sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl. An arbitrator lifted the ban earlier this month. Jean Lopez, Stevens brother and the longtime U.S. national team coach, is also appealing a lifetime ban for sexual misconduct.
USA Diving is the defendant in a federal class action law suit filed in July. The suit alleges the NGB ignored allegations of sexual abuse against a leading coach. A recent USOC audit of USA Badminton found four areas of “high risk” in the NGBs Athlete Safety program including failing to conduct required criminal background checks on members, not following Safe Sport training requirements, not verifying Safe Sport course completion in a timely manner and not requiring background checks or Safe Sport training for individuals in “frequent contact with athletes” including medical personnel.
USOC officials insist the organization can still provide a “new path forward.”
“Our organization is absolutely prepared to make significant changes that are appropriate,” USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland said. “Those changes may be at the macro level of our governance structure and our relationship with the fed government, it may be our policies and procedures.
“I do think the organization is prepared to make significant changes. I dont think that we would deny that change is required.”
Given the USOCs history, however, many are skeptical that an organization that, like USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming, has long been criticized for treating sexual abuse as public relations issue is really up to creating culture change. The performance of the much criticized Center for Safe Sport, which USOC officials have acknowledged has been under funded and under staffed, has done nothing to discourage the skepticism. The USOC has committed to providing Safe Sport with additional funding.
- Olympic champions call for Congressional overhaul of U.S. Olympic Committee
- Indiana Attorney General confirms USA Gymnastics investigation
- Former USOC CEO Scott Blackmun accused of lying to Senate, case referred to Justice Department, FBI
- Nassar, legal concerns, Congressional pressure to dominate USOC meeting Friday
- Nassar survivors attorney calls on LA 2028, Los Angeles put USOC partnership on hold
“The culture that the USAG and USOC implemented was a look the other way mentality and if its not real, it didnt happen,” Starr said. “They worked hard to not allow the truth to rise to the top, as a result, the silence stayed in the system for as long as it did. They got callous, and complacent, as well as putting the power of the sport in a few people that lacked any type of moral code. They mistook, winning and hard work in the gym for having a personal moral compass. At one point those two elements of life came together, somewhere along the way, they were separated, around the 70s when winning became more important than individual.”
The year ends with increasing demands from former Olympians and others for Congress to shut the USOC down and create a more athlete-centric governing body. Those calls for sweeping change arent likely to diminish in the coming year.
“I have a voice now,” Larson said during Januarys sentencing hearing, “and it needs to be heard.”