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Gymnastics Sexual Abuse Case Puts Spotlight On Protecting Athletes


It was hard to watch, and it was hard to pull away - that courtroom scene in Michigan. Dozens and dozens of women confronting the man who abused them. This week, Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. He's the former team doctor who sexually assaulted more than 100 gymnasts over several decades. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, advocates are asking tough questions now about why this happened in an Olympic sport again.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Over seven harrowing days, the victim testimony was gripping.


EMILY MORALES: I was affected by Larry. He did hurt me, and he hurt hundreds of other young women.


ALY RAISMAN: Larry, you abused the power and trust I, and so many others, placed in you. And I am not sure I will ever come to terms with how horribly you manipulated and violated me.


JORDYN WIEBER: I'm angry with myself for not recognizing the abuse. And that's something I'm struggling with today.

GOLDMAN: In a Michigan courtroom, gymnasts Emily Morales, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and dozens of others pulled the curtain back on an often hidden subject.

NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Those victims gave the world a masterclass in what victim trauma looks like.

GOLDMAN: Former Olympian Nancy Hogshead-Makar already knew what it looked like.

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: I wrote an article in 2012, and the title of the article was "Olympic Athletes Are Not Well-Protected Against Sexual Abuse."

GOLDMAN: Hogshead-Makar won three gold medals in swimming at the 1984 Olympics. She's now a civil rights attorney who's been dealing with the issue of sexual abuse in club and Olympic sports for the past eight years.

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Larry Nassar has 150 victims. There are 100 swim coaches who are banned that triple the number of victims that Larry Nassar had.

GOLDMAN: She's angry, she says, that the U.S. Olympic Committee, which oversees all the Olympic sports, hasn't, in her mind, been more assertive in laying out basic policies to protect athletes.

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: Here's how you need to train your coaches. And here's how you need to train the kids. And here's how you need to train the parents. And here's how you need to hire people. Until they're willing to be a leader and take a stand against athlete abuse, then we're going to continue to have these problems.

GOLDMAN: Hogshead-Makar says the committee's chief executive, Scott Blackmun, hasn't been that leader. Others are hesitant to talk openly and to off-the-record conversations with NPR. Sources who've worked in and around the committee agreed. The USOC hasn't done enough to hold the Olympic sports accountable. One person said when Blackmun took over in 2010, the mantra between the USOC and the sports became one team. Working together became more important than the USOC policing the sports and making sure the athletes well-being came first.

The USOC has its defenders. One source close to the organization says Blackmun has been very involved with the issue of sexual abuse of athletes including investing in the Center for Safe Sport, which launched last year. The committee has ordered what it calls an independent investigation of the Nassar case. Critics hope the USOC moves toward being proactive rather than reactive when it comes to protecting athletes. Nancy Hogshead-Makar wants to push lawmakers on the issue with a petition on change.org...

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: That asked Congress to weigh in and to make it clear to the Olympic Committee that they do in fact have this responsibility to address sexual abuse.

GOLDMAN: Congress did take some action last year. And next week, the House will vote on a bill that reforms the way Olympic sports organizations handle the issue of sexual abuse.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SMIKA'S "CORAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.