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Congress Demands Greater Oversight Over U.S. Olympic Committee

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S. Olympic Committee has a board meeting today in Chicago, and it's going to need to answer some tough questions. The organization has faced a lot of criticism over how it has dealt with sexual abuse scandals. Alexandra Starr has that story.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: This week, members of Congress arrived in Colorado Springs, home to the U.S. Olympic Committee. There, they demanded changes. Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette heads the committee that oversees the USOC.

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DIANA DEGETTE: When the very body that Congress created to care for our athletes becomes more concerned about winning and protecting a brand than the athletes themselves, it is time for a change.

STARR: More than three decades ago, Congress created the USOC and gave it a monopoly over the Olympic trademark. That has been interpreted to mean everything from the phrase go for the gold to the five rings. In 2016, the USOC took in almost $350 million, mostly from marketing fees and broadcast rights. Nancy Hogshead-Makar leads Champion Women, an advocacy organization. She says giving the USOC such a marketable property and exercising little oversight ended up shortchanging athletes.

NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: The administrator class has taken all the cookies for itself. They stay in the five-star hotels and are really treated like semiroyalty.

STARR: Less than a tenth of the USOC's revenues go directly to athletes. Hogshead-Makar says the organization has a lot of leverage over aspiring Olympians.

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: They have to be obedient and subservient in order to make the team.

STARR: Swimmer B.J. Bedford, who won a gold medal at the Sydney Games in 2000, says the fact that the Olympics holds such allure can make young people vulnerable to predators within sport.

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B J BEDFORD: The Olympics starts with a dream. There's nothing I wouldn't have done. And that puts athletes at risk because if someone says, do this and I'll get you to the Olympics, it's really hard to say no.

STARR: That's a reference to the sexual abuse scandals that have roiled Olympic sports. The most notorious case was former gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who molested more than 500 girls and women under the guise of medical treatment. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who presided over Nassar's trial, supports shaking up the USOC.

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ROSEMARIE AQUILINA: Athletes cannot thrive in a broken system that values money and medals over the safety of athletes. We need to flip the script.

STARR: The proposed legislation would convene a panel to investigate the USOC. It would then make recommendations to reorganize it. This is not the only reform circulating on Capitol Hill. There are discussions of creating an inspector general to permanently oversee the U.S. Olympic movement. Han Xiao is chair of the USOC's Athlete Advisory Council. He sees the commission as just a first step to bigger reforms.

HAN XIAO: The commission represents an opportunity for athletes to be at that table to decide what the legislation looks like.

STARR: In a statement, a spokesperson for the USOC says it looks forward to working with legislators. A year ago, the USOC hired Lisa Borders, the former head of the WNBA, to propose changes. She's expected to talk about them as early as today. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "CASTAWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.