United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee increases athlete representation on board in wake of sex scandals

USA

The Colorado Springs-based U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee on Friday said that it would increase athlete representation on its governing board as part of a series of reforms.

Critics, however, contend that far more needs to be done to address recent sex abuse scandals of Olympics hopefuls perpetrated by sports doctors, trainers and coaches.

Under the change announced Friday, the number of athletes on the USOPC board will jump from three to five members, which would mean athletes would make up one third of the board.

Those additions fell short of what former pentathlete and Olympian Eli Bremer said is needed. He said many athletes would prefer to see half of the USOPC board made up of athletes. He added there’s also a push to create more financial independence for the USOPC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, which depends on financing from the USOPC.

“The current Athletes’ Advisory Council has a lot of strings in its budget from the Olympic Committee,” said Bremer, a member of the advisory council who was speaking on his behalf.

“There is tremendous consternation that we need independence for athletic voices so there is less propensity for pressure from the Olympics community into the athletic community.”

USOPC Chairwoman Susanne Lyons hailed the board restructuring, approved by the USOPC board on Thursday. It is part of governance changes after the sexual assault scandal of Dr. Larry Nassar, sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for molesting some elite female gymnasts while purportedly treating them for sports injuries.

“We promised changes to our structure and our practices that are revolutionary and substantive, recognizing the importance of the athlete role in organizational decision-making, robust compliance and certification protocols, and reflective of the populations that makes up the Olympic and Paralympic community in the United States — and today we’ve delivered an important step toward that promise,” Lyons said in a statement.

“These outcomes are the result of hard work, cooperation and a sincere belief that the USOPC — through clear definition of its purpose and modernized, robust governance — can continue to be an incredible force for good in the lives of American athletes, and a source of great national pride.”

The USOPC also will have certification powers over the national governing bodies, such as USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics, which form the backbone of training for the Olympics in the nation, according to the changes approved by the USOPC board. Those governing bodies, of which athletes are members, oversee individual sports, pick Olympic squads and provide coaching and training.

The USOPC made the changes amid lawsuits alleging lax oversight of coaches, trainers and doctors who preyed sexually on young athletes seeking Olympics stardom. A group of 51 women who say they were sexually abused by Nassar have sued the USOPC. Swimmers, taekwondo competitors and athletes in other areas also have sued the USOPC, arguing that the organization failed to react despite abundant evidence young athletes were vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Bremer said the athletic community is hopeful that Congress will pass laws that create more far-reaching changes to the USOPC. He’s backing legislation sought by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat who represents Denver, which would create a commission with athlete participation to investigate the USOPC and recommend changes.

Athletes’ Advisory Council Chair Han Xiao said in an email that overhauling the USOPC board to ensure 50 percent representation by athletes “was always going to be a tall order considering the number of different stakeholders who have an interest as well as the current level of athlete engagement in governance.”

He said many athletes “are far more interested in prioritizing effective athlete voice and vote on the board,” which he stressed would require examining the role of board members and how they are held accountable.

“We are very much committed to ensure that we continue to push for athletes’ rights as well as the long term health of the Olympic and Paralympic movement while we navigate these structural questions,” he added.

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