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Olympic Officials Grilled By Congress About Sexual Abuse Scandals

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Members of Congress went after top officials from the U.S. Olympic Committee in sports like gymnastics and swimming today. Lawmakers interrogated the sports executives about widening sexual abuse scandals that have roiled some three dozen Olympic sport programs. Reporter Alexandra Starr is here in the studio to talk more about it. Welcome, Alexandra.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Thanks - good to be here.

CORNISH: So you were at the hearing. What was the atmosphere? Who was testifying?

STARR: It got a little raucous at times. And the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee was there, the CEO of SafeSport, which is an organization that was created last year to investigate sexual assault across Olympic sports. And the presidents of USA Swimming, Gymnastics, Taekwondo and Volleyball were in attendance. Notably, none of these people have had their jobs for very long. And in almost every case, that's because they replaced officials who resigned when a scandal blew up on their watch.

CORNISH: For example, gymnastics I think people know the most about - right? - when it came to light that team doctor Larry Nassar abused hundreds of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment.

STARR: That's right. And the head of USA Gymnastics, Kerry Perry, got some very tough questions. A Republican representative from Georgia, Buddy Carter, has a constituent in his district who enrolled her 8-year-old in a gymnastics club. It turned out that the coach there had been fired from previous jobs for sexual misconduct. The mother heard rumors; she checked in with USA Gymnastics and apparently was told that they didn't have anything on the coach. Here is Representative Carter questioning Ms. Perry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUDDY CARTER: Do you ever do background checks on any of your coaches like this?

KERRY PERRY: First of all, let me say that...

CARTER: Do you ever do background checks on any of your coaches like this?

PERRY: So...

CARTER: It's a yes-or-no question.

PERRY: There are background checks that are being done currently.

CARTER: Did you do background checks on him? This sexual predator who is in jail, in prison for 30 years - did you do background checks?

PERRY: I was not there. I can't answer that.

CARTER: Well, found out who was there because I need an answer to it, OK?

PERRY: Yes, Sir.

CORNISH: The focus has been on gymnastics, but there are other sports with problems - right? - other sport programs.

STARR: Yes, absolutely. All of the sports that were there were there because there have been scandals in their ranks. I will say USA Gymnastics was singled out, and you could argue for good reason given the scope of the Larry Nassar scandal. As you said, hundreds of girls were abused over the course of decades, and he was not fired and kicked out, you know, until last year, which is really saying something. But, you know, USA Swimming has 150 coaches on its banned list. In just the past few months, Taekwondo's former Olympic coach and his gold-medal-winning brother were suspended for assaulting female athletes, and some of those athletes were minors.

CORNISH: Do you get a sense that things will change?

STARR: It's really hard to tell. At one point in the hearing, a congressman cited a memo that came out of the USOC last month saying that the organization was considering sanctioning a coach. When it did that, it should take into account the effect the move would have on the USOC's reputation.

CORNISH: So is this about damage control, or what's going on?

STARR: Yeah, I mean, it sounds like it's about damage control, doesn't it? The head - the interim head of the USOC repudiated the memo during the hearing, but it did seem like a revealing moment. One thing we do know is that more people are reporting abuse. The head of the Center for SafeSport said last year they were receiving 20 to 30 reports a month, and now they're getting that many each week.

CORNISH: That's reporter Alexandra Starr, who is at the hearing on Capitol Hill today. Thank you.

STARR: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.