Olympic Athletes Fear Retaliation If They Speak Out

National Public Radio

July 25, 2018

By Alexandra Starr

Starting next month, Sarah Hirshland will officially take over as CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. One of the big issues she will have to deal with is ongoing sexual abuse scandals.

In recent months, athletes have come forward in sports like swimming, gymnastics, diving and taekwondo with allegations of sexual abuse or assault. Many athletes don’t go public until years after the alleged assaults take place. They stay silent in part because of the taboo around sexual abuse. In some cases, young people can’t identify what has happened to them as a crime.

But a major reason athletes stay silent is fear that publicly criticizing sport governing organizations could derail their athletic career.

Keith Sanderson, a three-time Olympian in shooting, made that point in an interview with KOAA television in Colorado Springs last February. The interview came just a few weeks after more than 100 girls and women testified in a Michigan courtroom about how the former USA Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, had abused them.

In the KOAA interview, Sanderson pointed out that there is one route to the Olympics, and that is through the U.S. Olympic Committee. “There’s no competition there,” he said. “They have a total monopoly on who the Olympians are.” To voice public criticism could potentially jeopardize their standing in their sport.

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