The traditional United States Olympic Committee pre-Olympic press conference is all about the Olympics which are about to begin. But this year in PyeongChang it was different, very different. The press conference was dominated by questions about the USOC’s handling of the Nassar scandal at USA Gymnastics and its fallout.
While USOC chairman Larry Probst said, “we think we did what we were supposed to do” regarding the handling of the scandal, he followed-up by saying the “Olympic system failed the athletes abused by Dr. Nassar.” The USOC had earlier engaged a Boston-based law firm to conduct an independent investigation to determine “who knew what” and what they did with the information. At the same time, U.S. Senators have called for the resignation of chief executive, Scott Blackmun. Though a separate investigation conducted last year by a law firm engaged by USA Gymnastics called for major cultural changes in the National Governing Body (NGB), Probst told journalists that the USOC “just had to do a better job.”
Probst went on to remind the journalists that, “as of now they (the NGBs) are independent institutions.” But, “clearly some things have occurred that would indicate we need to have a different relationship than we’ve had in the past.” While the USOC has set up a subcommittee to review the USOC’s interactions with the NGBs, currently the USOC can only charter the NGBs for different sports as per the Ted Stevens Act. That autonomy has led each NGB to develop its own identity and to flourish on its own, but has also allowed a layer of confusion and separation when scandals hit.
Reporters at the pre-Olympic press conference asked about policy changes and the potential for creating an investigatory staff that would be more proactive in monitoring the NGBs of each sport. Under the current structure, however, that might not be feasible.
However, the USOC is taking the heat for the Nassar scandal along with USA Gymnastics. And similar reports of sexual abuse of athletes have surfaced at USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo amid rumors at other NGBs. While the USOC will reportedly not be taking any personnel action until the investigation is complete, there are steps it could begin taking now to construct a program to minimize the risk of sexual abuse within the NGBs and address other areas of risk at the same time. Clearly, the problem of child sexual abuse at USA Gymnastics must be addressed and the USOC has a role to play – the public and the U.S. government expect nothing less. But wrongdoing is not limited to sexual abuse. Now maybe the time for the USOC to take a leadership role in designing, developing, implementing, and overseeing a program geared towards prevention of all types of wrongdoing, investigating problems when they do occur, and assisting the NGBs in taking corrective action whenever deemed appropriate. Only then will the USOC and the entire Olympic system regain the trust of the American public.