WASHINGTON — Less than a week after accepting the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, 85 survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse were in D.C. for the third Senate subcommittee hearing investigating systemic issues related to the abuse of Olympic athletes in the wake of the Larry Nassar abuse scandal, which involves the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State.
For one witness, talking about protecting athletes isn’t new.
“I do think that we’ve done this before and I think we’ve done independent commissions, we’ve done sweeping governance changes…and here we are today,” Han Xiao said. Xiao is the Chair of the USOC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, a position he has held since January 2017. “I don’t think it’s a failing of the organization, I think it’s a failing of the entire system the way it’s set up.”
His response was met with applause from the survivors and their families in the hearing room.
“I don’t think that the only thing that is different is that Larry Nassar is in prison,” Xiao continued. “I do think that in many cases, the presence of SafeSport has pushed certain national governing bodies to do more to protect athletes but I don’t think that there has been necessarily a sea change in the relationship between athletes and the NGBs or the athletes and the USOC.”
While the senators peppered interim MSU president John Engler, acting U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Susanne Lyons and USA Gymnastics president Kerry Perry with questions, Xiao was rarely questioned.
He was, however, critical of how the organization had handled sexual abuse writing in his testimony that “the USOC does not have a culture of doing whatever it takes to maximize athlete support and protection.”
His first example? How the USOC has responded to complaints of sexual abuse.
“The USOC’s lack of urgency protecting athletes’ safety and well-being: the USOC response to athlete sexual abuse has been delayed. Only under hell-hot temperatures from the public, media and you, the Congress, has the USOC sped up its response.”
Two-time Olympian Aly Raisman, who has been vocal in her criticisms, had more harsh words for how the USOC has responded on the legal side after the organization filed a motion on July 24 to dismiss itself as a defendant.
“The United States Olympic Committee has recently tried to avoid responsibility for our abuse by saying they do not train athletes,” Raisman said during a press conference before the hearing. “This shows the United States Olympic Committee puts its own interests before those of athletes. They claim us when it benefits their finances and their reputation, taking credit for medal performances and publishing ads with our photos and requesting donations for funding for Team USA only to distance themselves when problems arise to avoid liability.”
The survivors in attendance included several former national team members: Morgan White, who was named to the 2000 Olympic team before a foot injury shattered her Olympic hopes, 2016 Olympic alternate Ashton Locklear and Lori Wampler, who was on the national team from 2000-01. All three were coming forward publicly for the first time.
Part of what drove Wampler to come forward was the actions—or lack thereof—from the institutions.
“It was sad to me that USOC and USAG haven’t done more,” she said. “I just feel like there’s strength in numbers and the more people who came forward, I felt like I needed to have a voice and come forward.”
One of those reforms that she would like to see is an overall change in personnel.
“I think we need people who have been there, who know the culture and know what these girls are going through,” Wampler added. “We need an ‘out with the old, in with the new’ mentality. We’re keeping the same people around and it’s just not people who are in the know about the culture and what these girls are going through.”
At the crux of the issues with the USOC is the imbalance of power between the organization and its athletes. Fixing those structural issues that exist will be critical as the USOC and its national governing bodies begin to move forward.
“The sexual abuse of athletes is just one symptom of broader systemic issues that must be addressed to substantially empower and protect U.S. athletes moving forward,” Xiao said in his opening statement. “Individual athletes have almost no power in our system. Instead, the USOC and national governing bodies hold the dreams of our athletes in their hands. And athletes fear these coaches and administrators armed with congressionally granted monopoly power will retaliate if they protest or dissent.”