Once again, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has shown it cares much more about forcing its athletes to follow arbitrary rules than it does about protecting those same athletes from sexual abuse.
This week, the USOPC put two athletes, fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry, on probation for 12 months because they protested systemic racism and other injustices during the playing of the national anthem at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.
“This means you could face more serious sanctions for any additional breach of our code of conduct than might otherwise be levied for an athlete in good standing,” said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland in letters written to the two athletes and subsequently obtained by the Associated Press.
Hirshland categorized this as a “reprimand,” not an actual punishment, but added that in the future, any USOPC athlete who engages in similar protests will be squarely punished.
“We recognize that we must more clearly define for Team USA athletes what a breach of these rules will mean in the future,” Hirshland wrote. “Working with the [athletes and national governing body councils], we are committed to more explicitly defining what the consequences will be for members of Team USA who protest at future Games.”
Her message seemed to be specifically aimed at Team USA’s contingent which will compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics next summer.
On one hand, it’s refreshing that Hirshland didn’t ban these athletes from competing in future events. However, even probation feels like an overreach, as does the preemptive and unsubtle effort to prevent athletes from protesting at the Tokyo Olympics.
Because, really, the USOPC has much more pressing things to worry about. Just last month, a Senate report concluded that the USOPC “knowingly concealed abuse by (former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar), leading to the abuse of dozens of additional amateur athletes during the period beginning the summer of 2015 and ending in September 2016.” Despite this, only one USOPC official has been fired over the Nassar scandal.
Nine months ago, the USOPC said it was decertifying USA Gymnastics for enabling rampant sexual abuse, but then failed to take any meaningful action to follow through on such a promise.
Just this week, the USOPC proposed sweeping changes, but they are still just proposals, a full four years after the organization first found out about Nassar’s abuse. And those proposals only materialized after the Senate report, and after the Senate put forth its own reform plans for the organization, which would give the government much, much more oversight.
One would think that all of the USOPC’s energy would be focused on making sure the epidemic of sexual abuse in Olympic sports is put to an end. Instead, it’s concerned about the optics of protesting athletes at the next Olympics.
The USOPC shouldn’t be reprimanding protesters, but listening to them and learning from them.
Imboden, a 26-year-old fencer who won a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, took a knee during the national anthem when he was on the podium receiving his gold medal for the team foil event at the Pan Am Games.
On social media, he made it clear that he took a knee because of the “multiple shortcomings of the country,” including “(r)acism, (g)un (c)ontrol, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate.”
“I chose to sacrifice my moment today at the top of the podium to call attention to issues that I believe need to be addressed,” Imboden said. “I encourage others to please use your platforms for empowerment and change.”
A day later, U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her first during the national anthem when she was atop the podium receiving her gold medal.
“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” Berry said. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”
America can do better. So can the USOPC. But for Hirshland, that’s beside the point.
“While I respect your perspective – and that of every athlete for whom I’m lucky enough to serve – I disagree with the moment and manner in which you chose to express your views,” she said in the letter.
“The rules we operate under as members of Team USA exist for important reasons.”
That is certainly cold comfort to survivors everywhere.