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Tension high between USOC and athletes

Posted at 8:01 PM, Jan 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-08 22:24:50-05

COLORADO SPRINGS – The tension is high between the US Olympic Committee and many athletes over governance of the Olympic movement in America. An ad hoc group of athletes publicly called on the USOC board to resign last week over their frustration with recent board appointments.

USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland responded over the weekend by emailing members of the Athlete Advisory Council, asking them athletes to “hold their peers accountable” for what she saw as untruthful claims about the board appointments.

Since the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal first broke, new allegations of athlete abuse have come out of USA Swimming, USA Diving, and USA Taekwondo. Many athletes are fed up with the USOC because they believe the corporate structure of the organization prevents top officials from doing a better job of protecting them.

The appointments of board members Rich Bender and Steve Mesler, in particular, were blasted by the ad hoc group, which calls itself the Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOC. In a press release, the group says the appointments represent willful blindness to the cultural and structural changes necessary within the USOC.

“The recent Ropes & Gray investigation and the Congressional House subcommittee report call for profound cultural changes to the USOC; a re-organization that puts athletes’ interests and their well-being first, rather than corporate or employee interests,” it reads.

Ropes & Gray is the Boston law firm hired by the USOC to investigate its own leadership in aftermath of the Nassar scandal. Their 238-page report released in December found negligence by former CEO Scott Blackmun and former Chief of Sport Performance Alan Ashley by waiting over a year to disclose knowledge of abuse by Nassar to the board.

Olympic pentathlete Eli Bremer is one of the dozens of athletes who joined the Integrity group in calling for resignations.

“This leadership team has overseen the Olympics for years, and they’ve failed to make the changes, it’s time for them to go,” Bremer told News 5 on Thursday.

Bremer is also a member of the Athlete Advisory Council, which formally represents athletes under the current structure of the Olympic movement. Hirshland’s call for AAC members to hold their peers accountable seems to be pointed toward Bremer.

She wrote in her email that various press releases and social media posts claiming that the board appointments were made against the objections of the AAC are untrue.

“We have important governance issues and opportunities in front of us and they are worthy of debate and hard conversations,” Hirshland wrote. “But these cannot succeed unless they are based on the facts.”

She points out in her email that the AAC has an athlete representative who served on the selection committee that chose the USOC board members.

Bender, the executive director of USA Wrestling,  was selected to one of three seats representing the interests of National Governing Bodies on the USOC Board. Mesler, a gold-medalist in bobsled, was reappointed to a second term as one of three seats representing athletes.

However, the Integrity group claims Mesler defends the status quo rather than representing athletes.

“He has asserted that the USOC will always do what is in the athletes’ best interest; that cultural changes advocated by the AAC, by the Ropes and Gray report, and by Congress are unnecessary,” the release states.

Han Xiao, the chairman of the Athlete Advisory Council told News 5 his organization didn’t give an opinion on whether or not to keep Mesler because the current USOC bylaws prevent it.

“The AAC currently doesn’t have any official approval process for reappointments,” Xiao said. “And the other seats that are not athlete directors are not really under our influence.”

He added that he is aware of the growing discontent among many in the athlete community but said his group is committed to working on governance reform through official channels.

“We are working through means such as the Borders Commission to take a look at governance within in the system to try and solve some of these structural problems,” he said.

WNBA President Lisa Borders is has been leading an independent commission since June to review governance issues within the USOC.

“We fully support the work of the Borders Commission and the never-ending task of making sure the USOC is configured and governed to serve American Athletes in the best way possible,” Hirshland wrote in her message to the AAC members.