Olympic athletes gain power in the United States after a series of scandals

U.S. Olympic board adds more athletes, cites problems including the 2002 bribery scandal in Salt Lake City.

(Danny La | Tribune file photo) The colorful suit of South Korea's Sang-Yeop Yeo blurs by in a turn Men's 1500 meter Speed Skating at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah during the 2002 Winter Games. Salt Lake officials were accused of blurring lines by offering bribes to IOC officials in exchange for their vote for Utah to host the Olympics. That and other scandals resulted in a sharp reduction of members on the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee board of directors, but the USOPC is slowly adding members back in.

More than a decade ago, rocked by a series of scandals — including one surrounding the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City — the United States Olympic Committee took a machete to its operation. It hacked the board of directors from 125 members down to 11. It cut all vice presidential positions and dropped 23 committees.

Now, with Salt Lake City back in discussions as the host-in-waiting for the nation’s next Winter Olympic Games, the board of what is now called the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is again starting to grow.

The committee announced Monday that it would be giving athletes more representation by adding two athlete-at-large positions. Including other additions in 2010, the total number of board members is up to 16 plus USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland. That is a bit of a pushback on a 2003 report by the Independent Commission on Reform of the United States Olympic Committee that called for the board to be less insular.

The Senate requested the audit following a series of four scandals in as many years. One of those centered around allegations of bribes made by Salt Lake officials to International Olympic Committee members.

Board chair Susanne Lyons said more recent embroilments, such as the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal involving national team doctor Larry Nassar, drove the move to include more athletes’ voices.

U.S. Olympic Committee Acting Chief Executive Officer Susanne Lyons speaks during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on "Strengthening and Empowering U.S. Amateur Athletes," on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“You know, the pendulum often swings a bit in the world of governance,” Lyons said. “And, you know, that last major change was to make the board smaller, make it more independent. And now we’re realizing perhaps that pendulum swung a little bit too far...

“And that’s why we made the changes that we made. We saw some of the dangers of not having the athletes’ voice elevated as much as it could be in governance when we saw things like what happened with gymnastics that I think may be avoided in the future. We have the people who are most impacted by the work that we do sitting more closely at the table.”

Elected athlete representatives now make up a third of the board. The board also has more females and more minorities than its previous iteration.

The 2002 Olympics ended up being one of the most successful in history, and the Salt Lake area’s plan to make a run at hosting a second Winter Games also was discussed at the board’s meeting last week. No decisions on a date were made, though.

The USOPC and the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games have been weighing whether to bid on 2030, 2034 or a later Olympics. But Lyons said they don’t expect to get any closer to a decision until they can get more input from the IOC. And she said that isn’t likely to happen until late next summer, following the IOC’s presidential election in March (where incumbent Thomas Bach is running unopposed) and the closing ceremonies of the Tokyo Games.

“I think once (Bach) is firmly established once again in his presidential office and after the games, the IOC will focus on future events,” she said. “But at the moment, that’s not a high priority. They’re really focused on the safety of the athletes and trying to figure out how to bring the world together for Tokyo next summer.”

On that topic, Hirshland noted the IOC has said it won’t require athletes or members of a country’s delegation to be vaccinated to attend the Tokyo Olympics. The USOPC also announced that it will no longer sanction athletes who participate in peaceful acts of protest for social justice or human rights causes.