PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Five days after Chicago lost the bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, finishing dead last in the voting, Stephanie Streeter stepped down from her role as the acting chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee. It showed that there was some accountability for an embarrassing failure and that someone needed to — and did — take the fall for a very public stumble.
In comparison, what do we have in light of the sexual abuse of 250-plus gymnasts at the hands of Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar, a former member of the U.S.O.C.’s national medical network advisory board?
The opposite of accountability.
It’s the U.S.O.C. board members praising Scott Blackmun, the Olympic committee’s chief executive, at a news conference in Pyeongchang on Friday for serving the organization “with distinction” and for doing “a phenomenal job,” even though the Nassar scandal unfolded under his watch.
It’s Larry Probst, chairman of the committee’s board, apologizing to Nassar’s victims but also saying, hey, the U.S.O.C. hasn’t come out of this scandal unscathed because “there has been a tremendous amount of criticism.”
Probst said that Blackmun would be keeping his job — for which he was paid $1 million in 2016 — until the U.S.O.C. has reason for him to leave. The organization has ordered an independent investigation of its actions in the Nassar matter.
(Blackmun is not in Pyeongchang because he is recovering from surgery to treat prostate cancer).
It’s not enough that the U.S.O.C. was told by U.S.A. Gymnastics in 2015, according to report in The Wall Street Journal, that gymnasts had accused Nassar of sexual misconduct and that the U.S.O.C. did nothing to intervene — a fact highlighted by The Wall Street Journal.
And it’s not enough that Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, and Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, called last week for Blackmun’s removal. Or that more and more calls for Blackmun’s head are coming in by the day. Those demands make complete sense when the U.S.O.C.’s weak oversight of Olympic sports’ national governing bodies very likely helped a predator like Nassar thrive.
On Thursday, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who sponsored a bill that made it mandatory for Olympic governing bodies to report sexual abuse to the police, also called for Blackmun’s resignation.
“If Mr. Blackmun did nothing for a year after learning about the allegations of widespread sexual abuse, then he should step down,” Ms. Feinstein said, through a spokeswoman, in response to emailed questions. “There can be zero tolerance for turning a blind eye to sexual abuse of minors.”
Both senators from Colorado, Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican — said through their representatives that anyone who knew about the Nassar accusations and did nothing must step down. The U.S.O.C. is based in Colorado.
Probst said on Friday that Blackmun had acted just as he was supposed to after learning of the accusations against Nassar.
But the call for Blackmun’s ouster shouldn’t be just about the U.S.O.C.’s role in the Nassar matter. Because it’s certainly not the only sexual abuse scandal that has unfolded under Blackmun’s watch.
To his credit, Blackmun spearheaded the efforts to create the Denver-based U.S. Center for SafeSport, a national nonprofit organization providing education and resources, including a hotline, to promote respect and prevent abuse in sport. It took seven years.
Other sports, like swimming, taekwondo and judo, have had major abuse problems, and Blackmun was introduced to some of them soon after he took over as chief executive in 2010. Right away, he should have recognized that the U.S.O.C. needed to oversee the federations with a sharper eye and make it a priority to address abuse. He should have seen that it was the U.S.O.C.’s duty to keep all athletes safe.
In 2010, three months after Blackmun was hired, U.S.A. Swimming came under fire for mishandling dozens of sexual abuse cases. That year, the swimming organization set up a program to investigate sexual abuse accusations within its own sport. But letting a federation investigate itself is never a good idea, and the abuse continued.
In 2016, U.S.A. Taekwondo told the U.S.O.C. that it had been investigating sexual assault accusations involving two of its biggest Olympic stars. But after consulting with the U.S.O.C., the taekwondo federation put the investigation on hold for the Rio Olympics, and those athletes competed at the Games, according to USA Today.
At the Rio Olympics, Blackmun addressed revelations in The Indianapolis Star that U.S.A. Gymnastics had kept files of more than 50 complaints of sexual abuse of athletes, but failed to report them to law enforcement.
He called the U.S.O.C.’s policy regarding sexual abuse “state of the art,” even though the U.S. Center for SafeSport — whose charge was to investigate sexual abuse and other misconduct cases — hadn’t yet opened.
“We became more focused on this issue in 2010,” Blackmun said.
The SafeSport center started fielding calls in 2017. That’s seven years of abuse cases in Olympic sports, and seven years of the U.S.O.C. letting national federations investigate their own abuse cases.
That slow pace is a slap in the face to athletes. It showed that Blackmun’s priority wasn’t to protect athletes. It took 200-plus abuse cases of girls and women in gymnastics for him to finally open his eyes.
Blackmun and the U.S.O.C. couldn’t have missed the glaring fact that national federations shouldn’t be left to investigate themselves, no matter the issue. The federations’ goal is to market and promote their sports, so they can’t be trusted. It’s why the United States Anti-Doping Agency was formed to handle drug testing and drug cases. When the federations were in charge of policing themselves, athletes often seemed to get away with cheating.
Yet Blackmun is more than hanging on: The U.S.O.C. is applauding him. What message does that send to the hundreds of athletes who have been abused since he took over as chief executive?
A terrible one.
So when considering whether Blackmun should stay or go, remember what he said in Rio regarding that initial report of abuse in gymnastics:
“We have to think, first and foremost, of the athlete.”
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