(ATR) The head of the United States Olympic Committee Athletes Advisory Council tells Around the Rings an actual culture change in Olympic sport bodies could be years away.
Han Xiao, the chair of the AAC, was one of four officials to testify before a Senate Subcommittee this week along with interim USOC President Susanne Lyons, USA Gymnastics President Kerry Perry, and John Engler, Interim President, Michigan State University.
The title of the hearing was "Strengthening and Empowering U.S. Amateur Athletes: Moving Forward with Solutions". It was intended to update Senators on reform efforts from different Olympic sport bodies. The hearing was noteworthy for Senator Richard Blumenthal chastising Engler for berating one of the victims of Larry Nassar’s abuse, Kaylee Lorincz, and testifying to the contrary.
Blumenthal also told Lyons and Perry that the bodies had a "moral responsibility" to not petition to withdraw from civil lawsuits that seek damages from the USOC and USA Gymnastics.
"If you’re serious and sincere, you will withdraw [the filings]," Blumenthal said. "You need to be part of the legal solution, not just come here and apologize."
Han said that testifying in the hearing "validated a lot of the work" the AAC has done in speaking out on the issues of abuse in sport, even if he believed the organization took a position far too late. Continuing to speak out and meet with a number of Nassar’s victims who were in attendance allowed Han a chance to engage directly and learn from their perspectives while helping the AAC be "more proactive" in its position.
However, even amid the public statements Han said it is clear that the USOC and National Governing Bodies need more reform to show there has been a culture change that puts athletes and not performance first.
"You probably need a whole generation or two of athletes to experience [empowerment from NGBs] and to build that trust with the organization to feel comfortable raising issues and feel empowered to really be involved in decision making," Han said to ATR. "I think a lot of NGBs, they do give athletes a seat at the table and they sort of listen to them, but I don't think they necessarily hear them."
The USOC has put together an athlete and NGB engagement commission chaired by WNBA commissioner Lisa Borders as part of the ongoing reform efforts in the body. Han said reviewing engagement with an eye of changing culture is good, but questions the end result given "we've tried a lot of these same things before".
The AAC says it will lend a hand to any of the Congressional offices that ask for help in drafting language for any legislation that could emerge amending the Amateur Sports Act, which has set up the current system. The impetus will be on Congress if it chooses to make any oversight changes to the current sport system.
In the crowd of more than 80 survivors from Nassar’s abuse was Aly Raisman, who attempted to introduce herself to newly hired USOC chief executive Sarah Hirshland after the hearing. Raisman was rebuffed by Hirschland who told her "I’ve been instructed I can’t talk to you," according to media reports.
A USOC spokesperson eventually told reporters present that the situation was a mix-up, and that Hirshland immediately emailed Raisman an apology.
Han called the reports of the encounter "disappointing," but did not want to cast judgment without all the facts. He said that he still has not been contacted by Hirshland either, but was told by Lyons at the hearing that he is "on the list of people that she gave for Hirshland to call at some point".
"I'm in sort of a wait and see, give her a chance to show what she's about," Han said. "That's the sort of attitude I'm taking at the moment."
For new leadership, bringing athletes to the forefront of the discussion and protecting their interests will require a lot more then quadrennial support from the USOC and NGBs, Han emphasized.
"There are a lot of good people [in the U.S. Olympic movement], and the problem is, it is almost like if everyone is a good person and thinks all their coworkers are good people and we are here to support Team USA as a collective, then it is really easy to lose sight of the individuals you're supposed to be serving and I don't know if anyone has really thought about that," Han said.
"Just because we treat our Olympians or Paralympians well every four years when they go, doesn't mean athletes are supported during their training and the other 99 percent of the time and a lot of athletes are upset about a lot of different things. I don't know if it filters its way back up to the staff, and while I legitimately think they think they are doing their best and they are supporting Team USA athletes, I don't know if anyone else has raised any other perspectives internally. I hope so."
Written by Aaron Bauer
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