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U.S. Olympic leaders need to walk the talk after showing zero sense of urgency

U.S. Olympic leaders need to walk the talk after showing zero sense of urgency

Washington, DC, May 24, 2018 | Christine Brennan

The new post-Nassar leadership of the U.S. Olympic movement was on full display for all to see Wednesday morning at a Congressional hearing focused on the terrible sex abuse scandals in the nation’s Olympic sports.

Everyone was so calm, so measured, so lawyerly, so sorry — and so full of excuses about how they weren’t around when all the bad stuff happened, but now care very much about what has become the worst scandal in U.S. Olympic history and are doing their best to try to put a stop to it.

It was enough to make a normal person scream. One blast-furnace of a politician, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), did just that, verbally lambasting two of the Olympic leaders even though he got more of his facts wrong than right, seriously weakening an otherwise fascinating performance.

But Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), getting her turn near the end after having absorbed about two hours of the conversation, said it just right.

Beginning with a hitch in her voice, it was as if she were acting as proxy for the hundreds of victims of abuse within USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo, among others.

 “Honestly, I’m not reassured by your testimony because I don’t hear a sense of urgency,” Dingell said, her voice rising. “What are we doing to protect these young people right now? I just hope everyone here realizes that the time for talk is over and it’s time to walk your talk.”

Minutes after the hearing was over, Dingell still exhibited more raw human emotion in a brief conversation with me than the entire panel was able to muster collectively over a couple of hours.

“I just couldn’t believe there was no sense of urgency,” she said. “That wasn’t where I was going to go (with her allotted five minutes), but I was so angry at that point because all I heard was, ‘We’re working on it, we’re going to get there.’ Everybody keeps saying 'trust us,' except that’s exactly what the athletes and their families did, but you can’t trust them. So the system failed these young athletes at every level and I have no confidence that these governing bodies are doing what they need to do to make sure the system is fixed. I mean, there was just zero sense of urgency.” 

It is well understood that teams of attorneys have advised these leaders, including acting U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Susanne Lyons and new USA Gymnastics CEO and president Kerry Perry, to be careful about what they say. There are lawsuits aplenty concerning the Nassar horrors, with more likely to come. These are trying times in Olympic circles. We get it.  

But, oh, for one of the Olympic leaders to look a member of Congress in the eye and raise their voice and even pound their fist to express their abject disgust over what has happened to these young American athletes — even if they had nothing to do with it.

The time for toeing the company line and escaping behind safe answers in the U.S. Olympic movement is over. Transparency and honesty must become as important as winning gold medals — more important, actually.

This brings us to Perry, who took over at USA Gymnastics in December and still has not spoken with a journalist. This has to be some sort of Olympic record: closing in on six months without answering even one question from a reporter.

Let the record show that she did answer questions from members of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, apologizing for the scandal in which hundreds of girls and women were abused and saying she spends every day thinking about how she can protect athletes now and in the future.

But then she walked away from every journalist who wanted to follow up with her after the hearing, heading straight for the exits.

It was a horrible look for her, for USA Gymnastics and for the U.S. Olympic movement, ensuring that this crisis isn't going away any time soon, and just might be bigger than we imagined. 

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