While the main focus of Concussion Inc. is the sexual abuse scandals in USA Swimming, we recognize that many of the problems of swimming are also evident, in various ways, in other amateur sports. Indeed, that is one more reason why Congress needs to investigate the subject thoroughly, hold the appropriate leaders accountable, and reform the Amateur Sports Act.
Last November we wrote about reports by others on the corruption of U.S. Speedskating, the national sport governing body (NGB), and included detailed comments by former ranked speedskater Eva Rodansky – see https://concussioninc.net/?p=8336. Here we publish a guest column by Rodansky on the fiasco behind the national speedskating team’s poor performance at the recent Winter Olympics.
by Eva Rodansky
Even a casual observer of Olympic sports would have heard by now of the scandals plaguing U.S. Speedskating (USS) over the past two years: sexual and mental abuse of athletes by coaches, a skate-tampering scandal, top athletes forced to go on food stamps because of funding cuts. If USS thought redemption would come in Sochi, those hopes were crushed, as the American speedskaters drastically underperformed while the Dutch dominated the podium.
Yet the sport’s insiders will know that for almost a decade the athletes have begged the United States Olympic Committee for help getting their dysfunctional NGB to comply with the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act. The USS, however, continued to operate as though athletes were performing for its administrator’s benefit. Through the years, the USOC remained willfully deaf to the athlete’s struggles. If the USOC is unwilling to enforce the Sports Act properly, perhaps a governmental agency should provide oversight for enforcement of the Sports Act.
As a former competitor who raced World Cups for the USA in long track from 2001-05, I want to laugh when I see stories coming out, just now, calling U.S. Speedskating “the most dysfunctional” Olympic sport. I want to laugh when I read that Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC, insists that he will “leave no stone unturned” in an investigation of what went wrong with the U.S. Speedskating team. Really, Mr. Blackmun? The dysfunction within U.S. Speedskating has been festering for years, and your organization knew about it. You just stood by and did nothing, while athletes were forced to take the responsibility of requiring the NGB to comply with federal law – a proposition that is prohibitively expensive, a waste of precious energy, and an enormous source of retaliation. In other words, relying on athletes to enforce federal law is unreasonable.
Back in March of 2006, following a grossly unfair Olympic team selection process and a disastrous Olympics in Torino for the U.S. women’s long track team (no medals – a drought that continues to this day), I wrote an email to USOC Athlete Ombudsman John Ruger, informing him of the problems within U.S. Speedskating. In this email, I described USS as a totalitarian and unfair governing body that lacked transparency to its membership and was rife with conflicts of interest. All of this hurt the athletes and their ability to perform.
In response, Mr. Ruger asked permission to share my email with the people “in charge of speedskating.” I agreed, naively thinking we were “getting somewhere.” But I should have thought, “Oh. You mean share my email with the foxes who are watching the henhouse?” Mr. Ruger never followed up with me, and I never learned if anything happened as a result of my email.
For a time, the American speedskaters continued to win medals, though many grumbled that it was more despite, rather than thanks to, the NGB. However, that was not to last. Not surprisingly, the seething discontent eventually boiled over, leading to the scandals and underperformance of the last few years.
Through it all, I have learned that our esteemed Athlete Ombudsman, a position created by Congress to remedy just such inevitable conflicts, has repeatedly failed to do his job and actually stand up for athletes when they went to him for help. There has been at least one instance where the USOC has denied Olympic athletes access to their Ombudsman during a sensitive meeting involving complaints of harassment by USOC staff. Why is this? Could it be that the USOC’s top priority is the protection of their own image, doing damage control and attempting to sweep problems under the rug, in the interest of keeping the sponsor money rolling in, rather than serving the athletes?
I would love to have a job like John Ruger’s. Put my picture up on the USOC web site: “Eva Rodansky, Athlete Ombudsman. Look, everybody! We have an athlete ombudsman! This means we’re fair and we care about athletes!”
Why is it that the USOC wouldn’t step in and reform a corrupt NGB, as Scott Blackmun did when he brought in Mike Plant in the spring of 2013, until a major scandal blew up in the media? Why did the USOC ignore the boycotting short track skaters for so many months, forcing them to hire an attorney that performed hundreds of thousands in pro bono legal work? Why did John Ruger ignore, bury, and fail to act on my March 2006 email, laying out the problems within USS?
I believe that this is an issue that is faced by athletes in many Olympic sports, not just speedskaters. In my experience, the USOC is primarily motivated by serving its own employees, and not athletes. Scott Blackmun focuses on fundraising and creating an image for the media, fans and sponsors, rather than the interests of athletes in conflict with their NGB.
Within speedskating, the culture can be characterized as administrators first, athletes second. The athletes didn’t trust the leadership in USS to have the best interests of the athletes at heart. For example, it is telling that the one aspect of the settlement agreement that USS has not complied with is establishing of a fund specifically for athlete support. All funds raised through donations and sponsorships go instead to fund the salaries of the NGB employees.
USS is run like a private club, by a few individuals. As an athlete trying to change the culture, I was met with arrogance and a desperate grasping to regain control; with paranoia and retaliation for daring to question those at the top. I am not alone.
Now, Scott Blackmun insists on leaving “no stone unturned” in the search for what went wrong. Don’t make me laugh, Mr. Blackmun. How many stones have we, the American speedskating athletes and their supporters, overturned and presented to you in the last eight years? Would you have gotten your act together sooner if USS or the USOC had been forced to cover the athletes’ legal bills? Our attorney, U.S. Olympian Ed Williams, worked half a year for free, but even covering his expenses was a real stretch for athletes living on food stamps. Meanwhile, USS didn’t rely on pro bono attorneys – they hired them, paying top-dollar. Athletes shouldn’t be forced to require that their governing body comply with federal law.
Don’t be fooled. Now that the Games are over, the USOC and U.S. Speedskating will simply barricade themselves behind those closed doors, where they feel so comfortable, and manufacture some politically correct “explanation” for the failure of the speedskating team, that absolves them from any responsibility. Don’t buy it. Instead, if the USOC won’t require its NGB’s to comply with federal law, perhaps a governmental agency should be appointed for the task.