In the News

The Washington Post
Will Hobson

Three months after an extraordinary seven-day sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and U.S. Olympic gymnastics team physician accused by more than 250 girls and women of sexual abuse, stoked national outrage, members of the Senate Commerce Committee made clear Wednesday that anger over the case has not subsided on Capitol Hill.

In a hearing featuring testimony from two Nassar accusers and alleged sex abuse victims in two other Olympic sports, members of the Commerce Committee — one of three congressional committees investigating the Nassar case and related issues — had harsh words for Olympic leaders, some of whom were sitting in the audience, and vowed their work was still far from over.

“We can’t eradicate all the evils in the world, but there are clearly systematic failings here in the United States Olympic Committee . . . that need to be addressed,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “We have the responsibility. . . . It’s on us.”

Olympic gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Jamie Dantzscher recounted to the senators their now familiar accounts of how Nassar, who treated America’s Olympic women gymnasts for more than two decades, assaulted them under the guise of medical treatments, through massaging techniques they only realized years later had actually been sexual assaults. 

Wieber — one of four members of the “Fierce Five,” the team that won gold in 2012 at the London Games, to allege abuse by Nassar — accused Bela and Martha Karolyi, the famed Romanian coaches who for years trained America’s top gymnasts, of creating a culture of unconditioned compliance — where prepubescent girls are taught to stifle complaints about pain and fear eating too much in front of coaches — that she believes permitted Nassar’s abuses to occur.

“This toxic environment was the perfect place for a predator like Larry Nassar to flourish,” said Wieber, who Tuesday became the fourth Olympian to sue the USOC, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State over alleged abuse by Nassar, along with Dantzscher, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney.

Nassar, 54, is serving a 60-year prison sentence for federal child pornography crimes and was convicted earlier this year of 10 sex assaults in Michigan, where he also faces a prison term of 40 to 175 years. Victims have alleged he assaulted them as far back as the early 1990s, at Michigan State and at international gymnastics events including multiple Olympics around the globe. 

The Karolyis have denied any blame for Nassar’s crimes and have claimed, through their attorney, they had no knowledge of his assaults. The Nassar scandal has caused leadership changes at every organization through which he accessed victims: USA Gymnastics’ chief executive resigned last year and the entire board of directors resigned earlier this year, the USOC’s chief executive stepped down earlier this year, and Michigan State’s president also resigned in January.

All three organizations are also defending lawsuits filed by victims accusing them of negligence that permitted Nassar’s abuse. Accusers have come forward alleging they complained about Nassar to Michigan State officials as far back as 1997, claims the university has denied. The first documented complaint to Olympic organizations occurred in 2015, and top officials at USA Gymnastics waited five weeks to file a report with the FBI, and then informed top USOC officials of the situation.

The FBI’s investigation languished for reasons the bureau has never publicly explained, and Nassar continued to work with girls and young women through Michigan State until August 2016, when a woman filed a police report and told her story to the Indianapolis Star.

Wednesday’s hearing is part of an ongoing investigation by the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said, which includes a review of documents from Olympic organizations as well as Michigan State. Another hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 22, said Moran, who will invite officials from the USOC, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State to speak to the committee. 

“You were let down by individuals you trusted but who chose to ignore you, to look the other way, or to deliberately cover up abuses you suffered because their priority, simply put, was not your safety or well-being,” Moran told the accusers Wednesday.

The hearing also featured testimony from alleged victims in speedskating and figure skating, who spoke of cultural issues they believe have made sex abuse particularly difficult to stanch in Olympic sports, where adult coaches can quickly acquire powerful roles in the lives of dozens of children, and where Olympic organizations have long allowed fears of lawsuits and a narrow view of their responsibilities to impede child protection efforts.

“The idea that we’ve just started speaking up isn’t true. We’ve been yelling for years, but no one’s been listening,” said Bridie Farrell, a former elite speedskater who has advocated for stronger legal protections for children in Olympic sports since 2013, when she publicly accused four-time Olympic speedskater and former U.S. Speedskating president Andy Gabel of molesting her years prior. Gabel has denied Farrell’s claims, as well as those made by another accuser, and U.S. Speedskating eventually banned him from the sport.

As Farrell and the others spoke, acting USOC chief executive Susanne Lyons sat a few rows back and watched. Her predecessor, Scott Blackmun, who stepped down in February, took criticism for not attending January’s sentencing hearing for Nassar.

“We felt it was very important to be here, to listen and learn. . . . I think a lot of themes are emerging,” Lyons said hours later in a conference call, following a meeting of the USOC board of directors. “I think Washington is very interested in working with us . . . and will be an active participant in these dialogues going forward.”

At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Moran asked those speaking if there was anything they wanted to add.

“I felt alone for years and years,” Farrell replied. “Telling my story has not been easy or enjoyable in any way . . . but I never thought I would be here saying this, because I thought no one would listen. So thank you.”

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