In December, an investigation from the Indianapolis Star revealed widespread allegations of sexual abuse in USA Gymnastics that the federation was either unwilling, or as it claimed, unable to address. In total, 368 athletes, from Olympians to casual athletes, claim they were abused by an adult they trained with, whether it was a coach, a gym owner, or some other adult involved in their gymnastics career. Larry Nassar, a team physician for USA Gymnastics stands accused of molesting more than 80 gymnasts in the course of their treatment. All of this went unreported and ignored for years.
A report today from USA Today has revealed that USA Swimming had its own sexual abuse problem that was also being ignored in much the same way.
In 1999, USAG president Bob Colarossi wrote a letter claiming that the United States Olympic Committee would not allow the federation to ban coaches convicted of sexual abuse due to a confusing portion of the Ted Stevens Act, which requires all members—coaches, athletes, other officials—to be given a hearing before a ban. This allowed abusers to float from gym to gym, and continue to prey on athletes while the federations and gyms felt their hands were tied. It feels an awful lot like passing the buck, but the buck always stops with the USOC.
Friday's USA Today report finds that USA Swimming sent letters to the USOC in 2004 and early 2005 imploring the governing body to address, on a national scale, the rising epidemic of sexual abuse of athletes. USAS executive director Chuck Wielgus wrote to the USOC asking the organization to develop some kind of model or plan of action to address these issues, like many of the other youth organizations across the country.
"The thrust of our question, however, involves whether or not the USOC sees the nature of these subjects as being important enough to offer recommendations or requirements to all (national governing bodies)," Wielgus wrote in the second letter.
"When we look at other national youth organizations (YMCA, Boy Scouts., etc.) with grassroots constituencies we see national policies that help to guide the locally-based programs … and we think this overarching approach is something that the USOC should seriously consider."
In response to these letters, the USOC referred Wielgus to a company that ran background checks for the other sports under its umbrella and "said it was in the process of sending out a reminder about the importance of them." It's unclear if the USOC ever did actually send out a reminder of their importance. Nevertheless, it would be nearly a decade before any concrete measures were implemented, and that was only because a 2010 report from TV news magazine 20/20 made sexual abuse in USA Swimming a national story.
The revelation comes as the United States Senate Judiciary Committee contemplates testimony concerning a bill that would make it a crime for any national governing body under the USOC to fail to report allegations of sexual abuse to the proper authorities. It's uncertain how this would interact with the language in the Ted Stevens Act, but it is an attempt to avoid the situation where the USOC and USAG found themselves passing the buck between each other.
During the testimony, Rick Adams, a representative for the USOC boldly offered this, entirely too little and decades too late: "The Olympic community failed and must do better."