US lawmakers find more work needed to safeguard Olympians

Jim SLATER
Former US gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar's sexual abuse scandal has sparked US lawmakers to recommend changes in how the US Olympic Committee functions in order to better safeguard US Olympians (AFP Photo/RENA LAVERTY)
Former US gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar's sexual abuse scandal has sparked US lawmakers to recommend changes in how the US Olympic Committee functions in order to better safeguard US Olympians (AFP Photo/RENA LAVERTY)

Washington (AFP) - American lawmakers made 15 recommendations to the US Olympic Committee on Thursday to better safeguard athletes from sexual abuse in the wake of the Larry Nassar gymnastics scandal.

Suggestions by the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee in its 133-page report included more USOC punishment options for 48 national sport governing bodies and open talk about sexual abuse without non-disclosure deals.

"Our year-long investigation revealed a number of breakdowns and failures in the system to protect athletes, including in how allegations of sexual misconduct have been handled by the national governing bodies and the US Olympic Committee," Representative committee chairman Greg Walden.

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"While it's clear these organizations have made some strides, more work remains so that our athletes can finally feel safe and protected."

Nassar, a former US national gymnastics team doctor, was accused of sexual abuse by more than 200 women and was imprisoned for the rest of his life for molesting athletes, in many cases under the guise of treatment.

A report last week said top USOC officials concealed sexual abuse allegations against Nassar and made no effort to alert potential victims, with US Senator Jerry Moran calling for changes to the 1978 law giving the USOC control over national sport governing bodies.

In the wake of the scandal, as well as others involving sex abuse in taekwondo and swimming, a US Center for SafeSport (USCSS) was created.

But lawmakers urged greater action quickly before more athletes become victims.

"It is imperative that the USOC, NGBs (National Governing Bodies), and USCSS are proactive to ensure that their policies and procedures, above all else, prioritize athlete safety and are consistent, followed, and enforced," the report concluded.

New USOC chief executive officer Sarah Hirshland cited moves this year to empower athletes and better evaluate reforms needed to the USOC and the sports groups it governs.

"While we've only just begun to digest the recommendations, this report adds another significant source of information to ensure we understand areas in which the Olympic community failed athletes and meaningful actions we can take to ensure that athlete safety is our number one priority," new USOC chief executive officer Sarah Hirshland said.

"Sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination have no place in the US Olympic and Paralympic community and it's on all of us -– member organizations, institutions, and individuals alike -– to foster a healthy culture for competitive excellence.

"We will continue to do the work necessary to develop a healthy culture that keeps athletes safe and allows them to be their very best."

- 'More corruption' to find? -

Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who was the first to accuse Nassar in public, told the Washington Post she would still not entrust a child to the USOC over inaction by leaders when alerted to Nassar's abuse.

"What is the motivation and why were they keeping quiet? There had to be some level of buy-in. I suspect when you find the motivation, you will find a lot more corruption," Denhollander said.

"It was never just about Larry Nassar and that's what so many people have missed. Larry became the story because of what happened at his sentencing and because he had so many victims. But Larry is not the story. Larry is just a symptom."

Lawmakers recommended more punishment options for governing body leaders other than defunding or decertifying organizations to avoid harming athletes and ensure consistent policies across all sports, including those for in-depth background checks and sharing information.

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