September 29, 2010 -- The United States Olympic Committee has announced it will lead governing bodies of Olympic sports in unprecedented efforts to prevent sexual and physical abuse that could affect millions of athletes across the country, an issue that has been in the spotlight after a sexual misconduct scandal at USA Swimming.
A top USOC official said recommendations from a task force led by four-time Olympic skier Nina Kemppel will be implemented within six months, including the centralizing and standardizing of background checks for coaches, staff and volunteers working with athletes.
"The issue does merit more haste, and I think you'll see meaningful progress from us long before six months comes and goes," said USOC Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun.
An ABC News "20/20" investigation in April revealed that 36 swimming coaches had been banned by USA Swimming for allegations of sexual misconduct, including molestation and hidden videotaping of children in locker rooms. San Jose swim coach Andy King, 62, abused more than a dozen teen female victims over three decades and still had a clean background screening from USA Swimming in 2008, despite allegations against him and a police investigation. USA Swimming, the governing body of the sport in the U.S., is facing at least five lawsuits by swimmers who accuse the organization of failing to protect them from predatory coaches and allege cover-up at the top.
Kemppel, the Olympian who led the task force that was convened shortly after the "20/20" investigation, said she didn't anticipate the emotional impact that speaking to athletes who had been victimized had on her.
"I will tell you that it's enough of an issue in sport that people would call me up and explain their story, whether they be athletes or parents or coaches who have been involved in some way in the incidents we're talking about," Kemppel said.
She said athletes can be particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse because of "very unique relationships between athletes and authority figures" and "venues that promote more contact than some other venues outside of sports."
To address problems with criminal background checks, Kemppel's group recommended the USOC work with national governing bodies of Olympic sports to establish a "preferred provider network" and standardize the set of background search criteria across all sports and how to address violations.
In addition, the group recommended the USOC provide sports organizations with standardized training and education resources, including pre-hire screening "so that there is no club-to-club or sport-to-sport jumping," said Kemppel. Other recommendations that the USOC plans on implementing include a centralized online toolkit for sports groups to adopt and customize.
Despite calls for a centralized database of coaches across all sports with allegations of sexual or physical abuse of athletes, the task force ultimately decided not to recommend such a system right now, Kemppel said, although she hopes in the future it will become a reality.
"I think the practicality of doing this right now across all [national governing bodies] would be very difficult," said Kemppel.
"At this point, it would be very difficult for us to require some of the very small sports organizations to keep the kind of records and track the kind of data that would be required to truly keep a unified nationwide database possible and viable," she added.
USA Swimming Approves New Athlete Protection Policies
In response to the announcement by the USOC, critics renewed their calls for greater change at USA Swimming in the wake of the sexual misconduct scandal.
"The actions by the USOC will only be effective if there is leadership at the NGB-level that is committed to protecting athletes from abusive coaches," said Brooke Taflinger, whose Indiana swim coach Brian Hindson was found guilty of taping his athletes naked in the locker room. "I have some concerns that the leadership at USA Swimming will continue to protect coaches at the expense of athletes."
Bob Allard, who is representing one of the victims of Andy King, said the USCO did not go far enough with its recommendations.
"They need to purge the leadership at USA Swimming that was responsible for allowing this sexual abuse scandal to hurt innocent swimmers," said Allard.
Earlier this week, USA Swimming officially passed new regulation that implements athlete protection policies, expands background checks, and enacts mandatory reporting of credible information of sexual abuse within the sport.