This article was published on March 26 at https://www.salon.com/2023/03/26/is-the-congressional-commission-on-olympic-abuse-more-than-an-inside-job/.
by Irvin Muchnick
The latest demonstration by Congress that it has at least some interest in holding the U.S. Olympic movement to account for sexual abuse and other problems was called the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020. That set in motion a report by a Commission on the State of Olympics and Paralympics. The commission may or may not make its revised deadline of September of this year to complete its report — but that may be the least of the credibility challenges it faces.
Last month the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Athletes’ Advisory Council (AAC), through an ad hoc group it created called the Athlete Task Force, solicited comments for forwarding to the commission. An email message presumably sent to thousands of athletes said, “Email [email protected] and we can connect you directly to the Commission to confidentially share your feedback and experience of being an elite athlete in the Movement.” The council also tweeted the message, including the names of the task force members.
On the face of this, there’s nothing wrong with good-faith gathering and forwarding of pertinent material for the commission, so long as USOPC doesn’t intend to store or read the responses in carrying out this self-appointed brokering role.
But critical athletes who have found USOPC and its entities and mechanisms unhelpful and biased in the past — perhaps a major factor driving this action by Congress in the first place — are understandably skeptical. They suspect that filtering and subtly leaning on respondents to hold back on what they might want to tell the commission is precisely what’s going on here. They see the AAC’s move as characteristically inimical to efforts to fix USOPC self-dealing. This flaw illuminates why hyped efforts to address sexual abuse by coaches, like the new agency called the U.S. Center for Safe Sport, don’t amount to much.
In an email to Salon, the executive director of the AAC, Elizabeth Ramsey, rejected the suggestion that her group wasn’t speaking only for itself and with benign intent. She said the Athlete Task Force was merely connecting “any interested athlete to the Commission.” She added “Any assertion that the AAC in any way is not abiding by its independent voice is not only misguided but it is reckless.”
I’m not so sure about the reckless part: Earlier in the same email, Ramsey conceded that the AAC was “not a separate legal entity from the USOPC.” Presumably, the public must take it on faith that the AAC is, as she put it, “free from any undue influence from anyone outside the Council.”
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Former speed skater Eva Rodansky is one who believes the commission feedback structure is messed up. Rodansky’s experience dates back to what she says was whistleblower retaliation against her by U.S. Speedskating, the national sport governing body (NGB) under USOPC. That happened in 1995, when she was 17 years old and complained about an abusive coach who was running a junior development program in Salt Lake City.
I started covering U.S. Speedskating corruption, through Rodansky’s story, 10 years ago. In that period, Scott Blackmun, the disgraced former USOPC chief executive who would be forced to resign after the USA Gymnastics scandals blew up in 2018, used to hold up speedskating — like the larger and similarly toxic USA Swimming — as a model NGB when it came to handling sexual abuse claims.
Rodansky’s account leads to a different conclusion. After the Salt Lake City fiasco that derailed her career, she came back to the sport in 2001 and clearly racked up enough high finishes in competitions to be included in the U.S. team for the 2006 Winter Olympics. But she got passed over.
Why? Evidently because that the national team coach at the time, Mike Crowe, played favorites based on the fruits of his sexual harassment. Crowe eventually migrated to Canada, ahead of the resolution of multiple allegations against him, and would become head coach of that nation’s team. Just before the start of the 2018 Winter Olympics, Crowe was put on leave because of his emerging abuse history. Shortly thereafter, Speed Skating Canada fired him.
Famously, the rogue’s gallery of speed skating also includes Andy Gabel, the all-time longest active American Olympic skater before he graduated to administration of the sport. For the 2002 Winter Olympics, Gabel oversaw both the short-track speed skating and figure skating programs. In 2013, the first reports surfaced of his sexual misconduct and he left U.S. Speedskating. One of his victims, three-time American speed skating champion Bridie Farrell, now an advocate for abuse survivors, sued Gabel, speedskating and the USOPC.
Rodansky said she sees numerous problems with the advisory council’s gesture of assistance to the congressional commission. “This seems to be done without transparency and without any release in the media,” she said. “The next issue is the obvious conflict of interest of having athletes’ stories filtered through a group of Team USA insiders, instead of going directly to the commission.”
Finally, there’s the concern that the way the information is distributed will affect the populations providing feedback. Current competitors may not respond in a full-throated way because of the ever-present politics of national team roster construction. “What were the plans to send this information around to former athletes such as me, who’ve had bad experiences?” Rodansky asks.
She made these points and more in her own submission to the AAC. Her first bullet point was: “Why moving away to train is so dangerous for young teen athletes, especially young women.” That begins to get to the heart of my own main criticism of our country’s youth sports system, which haphazardly grafts extracurricular activities and infrastructure onto the naked commercial and international-competition objectives of USOPC and its NGBs. It all adds up to a set of assumed and unexamined public subsidies for a hodgepodge of tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, which face no outside oversight.
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The co-chair of the USPOC study commission — appointed by Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who co-chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee — is Dionne Koller, director of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Sport and the Law.
With respect to AAC’s conflict of interest, Koller told Salon: “We do not understand any entity to be acting as a filter of information from athletes and we are affirmatively soliciting direct communications from all athletes as well as other interested persons and entities related to the areas of our study. We are not in any way seeking ‘filtered’ information sent on behalf of athletes, though anyone can share information with us in whatever form they like.”
Koller called the athlete task force “one method for us to circulate information to the athlete community,” while emphasizing that the commission “has no plans to rely on this or any other similar group as the sole provider of information on behalf of their relevant constituencies.”
Koller described criticisms of the commission as “confusing” and suggested that the commission’s work was being unfairly lumped together with various internal and external examinations of USOPC. The commission was not tasked by Congress, she said, with seeking specifics about SafeSport complaints.
Reviewing the commission’s statement of practices and requests for documents from NGBs, one can understand Koller’s response, but it’s unclear who is really most confused. When Cantwell appointed Koller and other commission members in 2021, the quote in the senator’s news release literally began: “The USOPC exists to protect athletes and uphold the integrity of sport. There are many issues that plague sports, from unequal pay and treatment to sexual abuse.”
If the Commission on the State of the Olympics and Paralympics isn’t, at the end of the day, a platform for evaluating the U.S. Center for Safe Sport (among other things), then what is it for? Only to advocate for the most elite female athletes to garner their fair share of compensation and endorsement income, which today is disproportionately enjoyed by their male counterparts?
Here’s Koller’s last word on this line of criticism: “I did not write Senator Cantwell’s statement and Senator Cantwell does not control the Commission, though she did appoint me. What the Commission is obligated to follow is the statute enacted by Congress, which outlines ten areas of study. None specifically instruct the Commission to investigate SafeSport, though one of the areas references ‘recent reforms,’ which may be interpreted as including the establishment of SafeSport, and in fact some members of the Olympic community have responded to our requests by providing information and feedback about SafeSport.”
Above all, Koller contends that the report will be produced “after giving the entire Olympic community and any member of the public with interest an opportunity to provide input. This will be the most inclusive, fair, and credible process possible.”
Plagued by political red tape that delayed the release of its operational funding, the commission is now seeking an extension of its September deadline. Koller urged anyone, current athlete or otherwise, to send relevant comments directly to [email protected].
Irvin Muchnick’s book Without Helmets or Shoulder Pads: The American Way of Death in Football Conditioning will be published in fall 2023 by ECW Press.