Four of America’s best gymnasts are calling on Congress to dissolve the entire US Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s board of directors.
In a letter to congressional leaders on Wednesday, gymnasts Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols alleged the board ignored the allegations of sexual abuse brought against former team doctor Larry Nassar, helping to foster a culture of abuse.
‘We make this request after years of patience, deliberation and unrequited commitment to learn from our suffering and make amateur sports safe for future generations,’ they wrote in the letter.
‘We believe the board’s past actions demonstrate an unwillingness to confront the endemic problems with abuse that athletes like us have faced, and a continued refusal to pursue true and necessary reform of the broken Olympic system.’
The letter was addressed to Sens. Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, and Jerry Moran, of Kansas, who co-sponsored a bill signed into law last year that gives Congress the power to dissolve the board, effective at the end of the month.
Four of America’s top gymnasts – Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols – are calling on Congress to dissolve the US and Paralympic Committee’s board of directors saying they helped foster an environment of abuse
Susanne Lyons, then the acting chief for the US Olympic Committee, as well as USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry prepared to testify at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Olympic athletes and sexual abuse in 2018, after the allegations against team coach Larry Nassar were made public
In the letter, the gymnasts claimed US Olympic officials first heard of allegations against Larry Nassar in 2015 – at around the same time they were reported to the USA Gymnastics.
According to the Wall Street Journal, USA Gymnastics then-president Steve Penny called on then-US Olympic Committee Chief Executive Scott Blackmun in July 2015 to tell him an Olympic gymnast described what appeared to amount to sexual assault by a team doctor and that he had planned to report the matter to law enforcement.
Blackmun told Penny to ‘do what he had to do,’ a person familiar with the call said, and provided no further guidance to USA Gymnastics for weeks.
But two months later, the Wall Street Journal reports, Penny emailed the USOC’s longtime chief security officer, Larry Buendorf, detailing allegations from Maroney, Nichols and Raisman against Nassar.
Still, the gymnasts write, the USOPC ‘took no investigative action after learning that Nassar was an abuser,’ and continued to list him as an approved medical provider, even though he had been allowed to quietly resign.
A year later, he was publicly accused of sexual assault under the guise of medical treatment, and in 2018 he was sentenced to 175 years in prison – after he pleaded guilty to criminal sexual assault and child pornography charges.
Penny, meanwhile, resigned from USA Gymnastics in March 2017 and Blackmun resigned from USOPC in February 2018.
But the gymnasts claim in their letter on Wednesday some USOPC officials who were active in 2015 and 2016 ‘remain in positions of influence and power at the USOPC and the USOPC Foundation,’ including board members who agreed to give Blackmun a generous severance package when he left.
They said Congress should replace the board with ‘leadership willing and able to do what should have been done long ago: Responsibly investigate the systemic problems of sexual abuse within Olympic organizations – including the USOPC – and all efforts to conceal it.’
In the letter, the gymnasts claim that the board, now headed by Sarah Hirshland, left, and Susanne Lyons, right, still has members who failed to act on the allegations against former team doctor Larry Nassar in 2015 and 2016. They are with Anita DeFrantz, vice president of the International Olympic Committee
The letter was addressed to Senators Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, left, and Jerry Moran, of Kansas, right, who co-sponsored a bill signed into law last year that gives Congress the power to dissolve the board
In response, ABC News reports, Blumenthal said, ‘Congress should develop procedures to appoint a new board before dissolving the old one.’
The new board must be approved by the House and Senate before being signed by the president, he noted.
‘We’re grateful to these athletes for their continued demand for justice and accountability – a goal we share,’ Blumenthal said in a statement. ‘We look forward to continuing our work together to ensure that USOPC is held responsible for past failures.’
But the USOPC defended its actions, saying it was ‘fully committed to addressing sexual abuse at every level of sport.
‘The letter addressed to Congress underscores their concern, and we recognize the bravery of the athlete survivors who continue to bring these issues forward,’ the committee said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal.
‘The letter references issues that USOPC has been addressing for more than two years – and the work we continue to do every day.’
It listed actions the board has taken since 2018 to address abuse, including funding an outside investigation into the committee’s response to the allegations against Nassar, cooperating with congressional investigations, overhauling its governance structures and funding the US Center for SafeSport, a four-year-old system tasked with investigating and adjudicating abuse reports in the Olympic movement.
‘All of this has led to significant widespread changes to prevent such reprehensible acts from ever occurring again,’ the committee said.
‘We will continue to honor and listen carefully to the concerns raised by all members of the Olympic and Paralympic community.’
The letter comes one month after the gymnasts testified on the abuse they faced. Here, Biles broke down in tears as she recounted how the FBI, the USOPC and USA Gymnastics failed to act on the allegations
Raisman said the FBI’s failure to investigate the abuse claims, left Nassar free to abuse another 120 children
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating the FBI’s handling of the sexual abuse case after a Department of Justice inspector general report found the agency made ‘fundamental errors’ in its response to the allegations
The letter comes just one month after the four gymnasts testified about the abuse they endured to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating the FBI’s handling of the sexual abuse case.
A Department of Justice inspector general report released in July found the FBI made ‘fundamental errors’ in its response to allegations against Nassar that were first brought to the agency in July 2015.
The four women testified how they were made to feel the years of abuse they suffered ‘wasn’t a big deal’ when they reported it to FBI agents, who then failed to investigate their allegations and then tried to cover-up their inaction when it came to light.
Such shocking failings enabled the predator to carry on his reign of abuse. Nassar abused a further 120 victims in the 17 months between July 2015 – when victims reported the abuse to the FBI – and December 2016 – when the pedophile was finally arrested on child porn charges.
All four women testified to lawmakers that they know of fellow athletes who were abused during this period when ‘the FBI did nothing’.
They all demanded accountability with Biles saying the agents who failed them must ‘at least be federally prosecuted to the fullest extent because they need to be held accountable’.
‘We have been failed and we deserve answers,’ Biles said, noting: ‘Nassar is where he belongs, but those who enabled him deserve to be held accountable. If they are not, I am convinced that this will continue to happen to others across Olympic sports.’
‘To be clear, I blame Larry Nassar and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated that abuse,’ she said.
Raisman, meanwhile, delivered one of the hearing’s most chilling lines, when she blasted the FBI for failing to properly investigate their initial abuse claims against Nassar, leaving him free to abuse another 120 children.
She said: ‘Nassar found more than 100 new victims to molest. It was like serving innocent children up to a pedophile on a silver platter.’
‘Over the past few years it has become painfully clear how a survivor’s healing is affected by the handling of their abuse, and it disgusts me that we are still fighting for the most basic answers and accountability over six years later,’ Raisman added.
Nassar pleaded guilty to criminal sexual assault and child pornography charges and was sentenced to 175 years in prison in 2018
Following Nassar’s sentencing in 2018, USOPC – then known as the US Olympic Committee – wrote a letter to Team USA athletes to ‘tell all of Nassar’s victims and survivors, directly, how incredibly sorry we are.
‘We have said it in other contexts, but we have not been direct enough with you,’ Blackmun wrote at the time. ‘We are sorry for the pain caused by this terrible man, and sorry that you weren’t afforded a safe opportunity to pursue your sports dreams.
‘The Olympic family is among those that have failed you.’
The gymnasts have since been embroiled in litigation against the USOPC and USA Gymnastics, with the sports organizations inching toward a resolution. A $425 million settlement for hundreds of Nassar’s victims was proposed but not all of their insurers have agreed to fund it.
USA Gymnastics, the USOPC and insurers are due to update the court on where their settlement talks stand on Monday.