Just when you start to wrap your head around the breadth of the corruption in the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), another allegation surfaces that takes your breath away.
This time, it’s sex trafficking.
Last week, four female USA Taekwondo (USAT) athletes filed a joint lawsuit against the USOC and USAT, alleging that the two organizations engaged in sex trafficking by forcing its athletes — including minor females — to travel and train with sexual predators.
According to the lawsuit, officials in both organizations knew about allegations of rape and sexual assault against brothers Jean and Steven Lopez, who are commonly referred to as the “First Family of Taekwondo,” as far back as 1996. And yet, the organizations allegedly failed to either investigate or punish the Lopez brothers, or protect the minor female athletes who were forced to train and go on international trips with these men if they wanted to follow their Olympic dreams.
“The USOC knowingly trafficked these girls to obtain medals and money, time and again,” Jon Little, one of the attorneys representing the women, said in a statement obtained by the Indy Star.
The USOC’s role in the systemic sexual abuse of athletes has been under the microscope lately, owing to the fallout from the sexual abuse of more than 250 girls and women at the hands former Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics, and USOC doctor Larry Nassar. Many of Nassar’s victims have filed lawsuits against the USOC for enabling Nassar’s abuse, and failing to prioritize the protection of its athletes.
This suit will hardly help the USOC rebuild its tarnished reputation. It specifically alleges that current interim CEO of the USOC, Susanne Lyons, as well as four other current top USOC officials “had knowledge of the numerous complaints of rape and sexual assault made by female taekwondo athletes against both Lopez brothers” but all declined to take pro-active steps to ensure that the athletes would be free from harm.
Later this month, Lyons will join leading officials of other national governing bodies under the USOC’s umbrella who have faced rampant allegations of sexual abuse — including USAT and USAG — in front of Congress, at which time they will be asked to tesitfy about their handling of these scandals.
Hopefully, Congress is ready to ask the tough questions; in order for the USOC to foster a safe and responsible future, it will need to rid its ranks of the people who have put so many athletes at risk in the first place.
The allegations of sex trafficking in taekwondo
The allegations of abuse, enabling, and neglect in the 132-page lawsuit against the USOC and USAT are staggering, and frankly, difficult to summarize because of their breadth.
In a statement to the Associated Press, USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said the lawsuit was “calculated to provoke and offend” rather than seek justice.
“It appears to be a cynical attempt by counsel to subvert important protective laws with the goal of sensationalizing this case,” Sandusky said. “The USOC will vigorously defend itself against these outrageous claims. We want to be clear, however, that our criticism does not extend to the athletes whose names appear in this case.”
Essentially, the allegations center around two brothers, Jean and Steven Lopez. Jean was Team USA’s taekwondo coach at the 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 Olympic Summer Games, while Steven was a five-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist. Together, they have been the face of USA Taekwondo for the better part of the past two decades.
The lead plaintiff is Mandy Meloon, who the Lopez brothers allegedly began to abuse in 1994, when she moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center at the age of 13.
According to the lawsuit, Jean “befriended” Meloon, talked to her about his sex life, and told his teammates she was his girlfriend and pregnant with her baby. In 1997, when Meloon was only 15, Jean digitally penetrated her while she was sleeping on a USOC-funded trip to Cairo, Egypt. At the time, she was also regularly being raped by another USAT athlete who was over the age of 18. She became pregnant by this other athlete, and had to travel back to Germany, where she was from, to have an abortion.
“The USOC was fully aware that Mandy had to miss competitions to get an abortion to terminate the pregnancy caused by an adult resident of the USOC Olympic Training Center,” the lawsuit states. “The USOC took no action to curb sexual relationships between minor athletes living in its Colorado Springs training center and adults living in or working for the USOC Colorado Springs Training Center.”
Additionally, since Meloon lived at the USOC training center, USOC employees were responsible for taking Mandy to and from high school, but failed to do so on numerous times. She dropped out of school in 1996 while living at the training center.
In 2000, Meloon left the USOC training center and went to train with the Lopez brothers in Texas. When she was 18, she began having a sexual relationship with Steven. Steven allegedly punched Meloon in the face in 2002. In 2004, after he was detained for beating her again, he broke into her house, where he beat and raped her. The lawsuit alleges that Jean, who was a USOC Coach at this time, was aware of the physical and sexual abuse Steven was enacting on Meloon, and did nothing.
In 2006, after Meloon broke up with Steven and began dating other men, Steven broke into Meloon’s house, forcing her to call the police, with whom she filed an incident report. She then reported the case number of that incident report to the then-CEO of USAT, David Askinas, as well as the then-USOC athlete ombudsman, John Ruger. Neither offered her any assistance. Later that year, she submitted a written grievance to USOC and USAT detailing all of the abuse she’d experienced at the hands of Jean and Steven over the previous decade.
But rather than act on Meloon’s behalf, the USAT publicly smeared her reputation and pushed her to drop her grievance and admit that she was “mentally ill” if she wanted a chance to make it onto the 2008 Olympic team. She refused to oblige, and was left off the team. She pursued arbitration, which once again exposed USOC officials to the breadth of her complaints, but ultimately was left off the Olympic team and suspended from USAT. She proceeded to quit the sport.
Three other women publicly came forward in this lawsuit with similarly alarming allegations — Heidi Gilbert, Amber Means, and Gabriela Joslin. Those three women filed a complaint against Jean and Steven in 2015, which triggered a SafeSport investigation.
However, in 2016, the USOC and USAT paused that investigation so the brothers could coach in and compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics, according to reporting by USA Today. The investigations continued after the Games concluded.
The USOC finally banned Jean Lopez from coaching on April 3, 2018 after the SafeSport investigation found “a decades long pattern of sexual misconduct by an older athlete/coach abusing his power to groom, manipulate, and ultimately sexually abuse younger female athletes.”
The investigation into Steven Lopez is ongoing, though he was temporarily suspended this week after the lawsuit came out.
The USOC’s staggering lack of accountability
Obviously, everything about the allegations against the Lopez brothers is horrendous, and they should be held accountable for their actions. While abuse never happens in a vacuum, it can be tricky to identify the enablers and properly hold them accountable.
But given the numerous reports of abuse against the Lopez brothers, the fact that so much of this abuse happened in USOC housing or on USOC-funded trips, and the fact that the Lopez brothers are incredibly famous and powerful in Olympic circles, it’s next to impossible to separate USOC officials from the rampant abuse in taekwondo.
This is particularly true in the case of Lyons, who is currently serving as the interim CEO of the USOC, since the embattled USOC CEO Scott Blackmun stepped down after the Pyeongchang Olympics. In 2013, USAT was on probation, which means that the USOC temporarily directly supervised USAT and all of its coaches and athletes. Who was the USOC executive put in charge of that supervision? Lyons, of course.
That fact certainly makes it much more understandable why the lawsuit claims that Lyons was aware of the numerous rape allegations against the Lopez brothers, and failed to act. Of course, she wasn’t alone; it also alleges that Gary Johansen, current Associate General Counsel at the USOC; Rick Adams, another current USOC in-house attorney; Meredith Miller, current Manager of Sports Performance at the USOC; and Malia Arlington, the current COO of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, were all aware of reports that the Lopez brothers raped, beat, and even drugged female taekwondo athletes, many of them minors, and yet did nothing.
This is all particularly damning when combined with what we know about how the USOC handled — or, really, mishandled — allegations against Nassar. Blackmun knew about the allegations against Nassar for over a year before he was arrested, and said nothing, despite the fact that Nassar was still seeing patients during that time. For most of the last two years, as more reporting has been done on Nassar’s crimes and more victims have come forward, the USOC stood by USA Gymnastics’ side and did not reach out individually to offer any support to Nassar’s victims.
In January, while Nassar’s victims were capturing national attention with their harrowing victim-impact statements at his sentencing trials in Michigan, the USOC finally called for the entire USAG board of directors to resign. Blackmun and the entire USOC board, however, remained in their positions. In fact, Blackmun stayed in his job until three days after the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics ended. Even then, he didn’t take responsibility for the rampant sexual abuse throughout Olympic sports — he said he was resigning for health reasons.
And, in case you’re wondering, there has been no clamoring for accountability or change from other executives at the USOC. In fact, up until Blackmun’s final days, members of the USOC Board of Directors were defending him, insisting that an internal investigation into the USOC’s handling of the Nassar case would clear Blackmun of any and all wrongdoing.
“He has served the USOC with distinction,”chairman Larry Probst said of Blackmun during a news conference in Pyeongchang. “We think that he did what he was supposed to do and did the right thing at every turn.”
The USOC is the governing body that is supposed to keep the leaders of each Olympic sport in line. But the responsibility of overseeing the USOC falls to Congress. Thankfully, there are currently three ongoing congressional investigations into sexual abuse in Olympic sports. Hopefully these elected officials will take the time to read and be informed by Meloon’s lawsuits before they set their sights on building a safer future for Olympic athletes.
“USOC has reached for commercial success at all costs by ignoring, denying, obstructing, or covering up complaints of sexual abuse, deferring and diverting investigations, and continuing to commercially support National Governing Bodies that tolerate and often facilitate sexual abuse by coaches and other adults,” it reads.
Ensuring the safety of future Olympic athletes will require stakeholders to undertake a full reckoning of the damage done and mete out full accountability for the malefactors who facilitated these dangerous environments.
For the USOC, that can only mean one thing — a completely fresh start.