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Olympians Continue to Experience Widespread Abuse and Endangerment. We now Know How to Protect Them.
COMMENTARY

March 4, 2022by Marci Hamilton, Founder and CEO of CHILD USA
Olympians Continue to Experience Widespread Abuse and Endangerment. We now Know How to Protect Them.
The Beijing Olympic Tower is displayed inside the Olympic rings at the main media center ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

I love the Olympics, but the 2022 games reinforced how unsafe the system is for young athletes. During the 2022 Games, we witnessed several new and shocking accounts of abuse that current athletes had endured prior to and during the games.

The abuse stories started before the games even began with the removal of the general manager of the U.S. 2022 Olympic men’s hockey team, Stan Bowman, for his cover up of youth sex abuse in the NHL.

From the U.S. Olympic snowboarding head coach Peter Foley being accused of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior towards female snowboarding athletes, to last summer when we were deprived of the performance of the gymnastics GOAT, Simone Biles, as she carried the weight of all survivors of Larry Nassar on her shoulders in Tokyo. She stood up for her mental health, which was such an important example for all youth, but the fact that the sport itself had brought this agony onto her is unforgivable.

Abuse of athletes is hardly specific to the United States. The doping scandal surrounding the 15 year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva was yet another example of the Russians doping young figure skaters without regard for the rules or the health and safety of young athletes in elite sport. The South Korean women’s curling team also revealed decades of harsh training and abuse from their coaches.   


This is what we heard when the entire world had its eyes on these athletes.

It’s clear that the abuse of elite athletes remains widespread and the systems are virtually unchanged since 2016, when the Indianapolis Star ran a scathing exposé on USA Gymnastics, which opened the floodgates and led to dozens and then hundreds of brave survivors coming forward to expose decades of abuse in gymnastics perpetrated by Larry Nassar, coaches, and the studious “see-no-evil” approach of the Karolyis.

As a nation, we have been horrified to hear the stories of Olympic athletes and world champions, whose health and safety have been tossed to the side for the glory and prestige of the USA Gymnastics to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, the National Governing Bodies for each sport, and the gyms and coaches.

We now know more than ever about what happened. The good news is that there is a clear path to putting athletes’ well-being first, which in turn means more success for everyone.

In 2018, national experts in child sex abuse prevention, law enforcement, academia, trauma, sports, and journalism came together to investigate the systemic and institutional failures that allowed the abuse by Nassar to occur and continue for so long.

After nearly three years of in-depth surveys and interviews with victims and their families, public hearings, fact finding missions, and data collection, a recently released independent report from CHILD USA’s Game Over Commission has found that not a single investigated institution—from Michigan State University and USOPC, all the way up to the FBI and even state medical licensing boards—has adequate policies in place to stop the cycle of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of athletes. 


It’s clear based on the abuses we are still seeing that the USOPC and other institutions are not making the necessary reforms to prevent future abuse, it’s time for Congress to step in and make athlete well-being a priority. 

A key finding from the report is that the Olympic system is structured to create an environment where abuse and exploitation can thrive. New data revealed that elite athletes are forced to endure physical harm, ignore their physical and emotional needs, and the vast majority had no idea how to report it.

As outlined in the report—in order to ensure the next generation of young athletes have protections against abusers—we must establish a multi-pronged approach at all levels of government, sports organizations, and state medical licensing boards.

Currently, the institutional makeup and culture of elite sports actively disincentivize the U.S. Olympic system from putting in place the necessary reforms. Medals and media have meant more than the athletes themselves.

The USOPC is either unwilling or unable to reform itself – even when asked to take on the relatively minor task of pausing the use of SportsEngine until it blocked coaches accused of sexual misconduct from getting access to personal information of youth athletes.

Yet, Congress has the power to act. And despite the ongoing dysfunction and partisanship in Washington, keeping all children and youth athletes safe from abuse should be something that all Americans can agree on.

It’s time to pass legislation to create a new independent, federal agency tasked with reform that prioritizes athlete well-being and safety and oversees the USOPC. Through that body, Congress can alter the financial incentives that tempt the USOPC and National Governing Boards to prioritize their financial strength and image over the well-being of their athletes.

Let’s honor the bravery of all of the survivors who have risked so much to come forward by protecting the next generation of athletes. One sure way that we can make that happen is if Congress acts now and makes sure we have proper oversight of the Olympic committee in place by the 2024 Summer Olympics.

We have a moral imperative to do nothing less, and will have even more spectacular athletic performances when the trauma the system created doesn’t impede their success. If you heard Simone Biles during the summer Olympics, you know that we lost an incredible set of performances because the system trapped her into Nassar’s abuse.  


We can all cheer on Team USA in the future only if significant reforms happen. We must listen to our great athletes, follow the guidance of the leading experts, and do everything we can to construct the pathway to safety and glory.


Marci A. Hamilton is the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit academic think tank dedicated to interdisciplinary, evidence-based research to improve laws and public policy to end child abuse and neglect. She is also the Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice and a Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion at the University of Pennsylvania. You can find her on Twitter @Marci_Hamilton.

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