The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee board of directors, under unrelenting pressure from Congress and former Olympians in the wake of the USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming sex abuse scandals, has unanimously approved what it characterized as its most sweeping reforms in decades.

The board on Thursday approved by-law changes that the USOPC said will increase athlete representation on its board and hold national governing bodies more accountable.

Current and former Olympians and their supporters, however, said the reforms do not go far enough, describing the changes as a belated attempt at damage control by the organization in response to recent bi-partisan legislation that would give Congress the power to terminate the USOPC board and decertify NGBs.

This week’s vote comes three months after the Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019 co-authored by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was introduced. The act would not only dramatically increase Congressional oversight over the USOPC and the 50 NGBs under its umbrella but would also require the USOPC to contribute $20 million annually to the U.S. Center for SafeSport and mandate that the Center publicly list all individuals barred from USOPC-sanctioned sport for sexual and physical abuse.

The legislation follows an 18-month investigation led by Moran and Blumenthal into the USOPC, USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and other NGBs in the wake of the Larry Nassar and USA Swimming cases.

USOPC officials said this week’s by-law reforms are the first in a series of “fundamental governance improvements” within the organization and the American Olympic sports movement to be finalized in the coming months,

“These reforms are a significant first step of many in our ongoing efforts to ensure our athletes are at the heart of what do we and who we are going forward,” USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland said. “We have taken action and will continue to take action with members of the Olympic and Paralympic community to affirmatively place athlete well-being and strong, smart governance on an equal footing with sustained competitive excellence. That unified commitment gives me great confidence that these measures will be embraced and improved upon in the weeks, months and years ahead.”

Hirshland was given a mandate to create a more athlete-centric organization and hold the NGBs to a higher level of accountability when she was hired in August 2018. Hirshland replaced Scott Blackmun, who was forced out in February 2018 in the wake of the Nassar scandal. Blackmun, who received a $2.4 million buy-out from the USOPC, was later referred to the Department of Justice and the FBI for criminal investigation by Moran and Blumenthal, who accused him of making false statements and misleading Congress.

The reforms, which go into effect January 1, 2020, also follow a pair of USOPC-commissioned reports. Ropes & Gray, a Boston-based law firm hired by the USOPC to investigate the handling of the Nassar case, last December issued a 233-page report that was a damming rebuke of how USA Gymnastics, the USOPC, Michigan State, the FBI and law enforcement enabled the former U.S. Olympic and USA Gymnastics team physician’s decades of sexual abuse of young gymnasts and athletes.

A commission led by former WNBA commissioner Lisa Borders completed nine-month study on the USOPC governance and structure earlier this year.

Under the new by-law changes, athlete representation on the USOPC board will increase from three to five members, reaching a recommended requirement of 33 percent athlete participation. The reforms also include direct election and re-election of athlete and NGB representatives to the board from the Athletes’ Advisory Council, NGB Council and U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association.

The reforms also give the USOPC greater oversight over the NGBs, clarifying according to a statement, “that the duty of the USOPC is to certify versus recognize NGBs, and hold NGBs accountable to specific compliance standards.”

Those standards include governance and compliance requirements, athlete safety policies and procedures that “comply with all applicable laws and safe sport policies,” greater accuracy and transparency in financial reporting, approved selection procedures, athlete/team recommendations, strategic planning and “operational performance that demonstrates specific capability, maintenance of policies, ability to generate revenue, manage grievance procedures, adopt and uphold a whistleblower policy and cooperate with trademark policies of the USOPC.”

“We promised changes to our structure and our practices that are revolutionary and substantive, recognizing the importance of the athlete role in organizational decision-making, robust compliance and certification protocols, and reflective of the population that makes up the Olympic and Paralympic community in the United States – and today we’ve delivered an important step toward that promise,” USOPC board chairman Susanne Lyons said. “These outcomes are the result of hard work, cooperation and a sincere belief that the USOPC – through clear definition of its purpose and modernized, robust governance – can continue to be an incredible force for good in the lives of American athletes, and a source of great national pride.”

But Olympians, past and present, counter that the USOPC changes still don’t go far enough in protecting athletes and creating a significant role in how their sports are governed.

“Where does it give the athletes a voice?” said Katie Uhlaender, a world skeleton champion and four-time Olympian. “I see reforms to USOPC to NGB governance, but not in regard to how the athletes have a voice.

“If that athlete has a problem they go to their NGB? Can they explain how this is a safer environment? Especially long term? How would this have prevented Larry Nassar from abuse?”

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