Federal lawmakers passed a sweeping bill on Thursday giving themselves the ability to oust leaders of the U.S. Olympic movement, in the wake of scandals over the movement’s handling of finances, abuse claims and athlete welfare.
The legislation was approved unanimously in the House of Representatives, after passing in the Senate, also unanimously, in August. It now heads to the desk of President Trump, whose aides said they expected him to sign it, as long as it didn’t contain unrelated provisions.
If signed, the law would allow Congress to vote to remove board members of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which oversees domestic amateur sports. They would also be able to decertify a specific sport’s national governing body.
In addition, the law would significantly expand athlete representation in sports governing bodies, potentially setting off efforts among candidates to join a movement long dominated by professional sports leaders, while athletes’ rights activism is growing rapidly.
Lawmakers who crafted the bill, chiefly Sen. Jerry Moran (R., Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), frequently said they were motivated by what they had learned about national governing bodies such as USA Gymnastics’ handling of allegations of sexual assault and the case of former women’s team physician Larry Nassar, in particular.
The USOPC initially fought the bill, arguing that it could endanger Team USA’s ability to compete in the Olympic Games because of International Olympic Committee rules about national committees’ independence from their countries’ governments. At one point in late 2019, USOPC Chief Executive Sarah Hirshland shared with senators an IOC letter that set out what the proposed law should say and not say to comply with Olympic rules.
After senators, including Colorado Republican Cory Gardner who counts the committee among his constituents, rejected the argument, the USOPC dropped its opposition. This year, the USOPC took a markedly different approach to Congress, including pleading for up to $200 million in federal coronavirus relief for the national governing bodies. The request went unaddressed in relief legislation, though most national governing bodies did secure forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program.
Ms. Hirshland on Thursday praised the passage of the bill, saying, “Team USA athletes had a big win in the halls of Congress.”
Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat who co-sponsored the bill in the House, said it aimed to shift the Olympic movement to focus more closely on the health and well-being of athletes, and that, “It’s not as if we’re installing a bunch of government officials all over the place.”
“That’s not what this bill is. It’s asking the national governing bodies and the Olympic and Paralympic Committee to do a better job themselves,” he said, describing the dissolution provisions as, “a pretty big hammer to have compliance with the law.”
“We hope to never wield the hammer. But the case of Larry Nassar showed that it simply got out of control, the sexual abuse, and we really need the national governing bodies to take steps to make sure this never happens again.”
Even as Congress seeks to tighten its grip over the Olympic movement, that movement is still facing other pressures.
Multiple wide-ranging federal criminal investigations into financial and business misconduct throughout the U.S. Olympic system are ongoing, The Wall Street Journal has reported—though they appear to have stalled in recent months, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, one person familiar with the investigations said.
The USOPC and USA Gymnastics, meanwhile, have been ordered to engage in a fresh mediation effort, along with their insurers, over a settlement to resolve the legal claims of hundreds of women and girls abused by Nassar.
—Rebecca Davis O’Brien contributed to this article.
Write to Louise Radnofsky at [email protected]
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