A fish rots from the head. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the head of the Olympic movement, and it is rotten to the core. Long ago, this vile organisation abandoned its stated principles of “excellence, friendship and respect” to embrace greed, corruption and abuse.
For many, the enduring image of Beijing 2022 will not be one of Olympic glory, but the tragic and bizarre spectacle attending the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) and 15-year-old figure skater Kamila Valieva. Once again, the Russians got caught cheating: Valieva tested positive for a banned medication. Still the IOC allowed her to compete, and then stood by while this child and her Olympic dreams were publicly crushed. After her performance collapsed, her despicable coach humiliated her, badgering her about on-ice failures as Valieva left the rink.
Thomas Bach, the IOC president, expressed outrage at the coach and team’s conduct but said nothing more about the Russian Olympic Committee and its failure to protect this child.
Turning a blind eye to the deeper issues plaguing the Games is nothing new for the IOC. For a third straight Olympics, Russia was allowed to compete as the “Russian Olympic Committee” under sanctions imposed because of a widespread state-sponsored doping and cover-up scheme at the 2014 Sochi Games.
It seems nothing is unaffected by the rot. Bribery scandals have cropped up around the IOC site selection process repeatedly for the past two decades. The Salt Lake City scandal in 2002, criminal charges for the chief of Rio 2016 and new suspicions about bribes for Tokyo 2020.
If the IOC’s corruption only involved site selection bribery and accepting rampant doping, that would be reprehensible. But the organisation’s conduct during the Beijing Games suggests that its corruption has metastasised into complicity with genocide, sexual assault and child abuse.
Bach was accused of ignoring pleas from human rights groups from around the world and failed to address China’s campaign of genocide against its 2 million predominantly Muslim Uyghur population. “If we are taking a political standpoint, and we are getting in the middle of tensions and disputes and confrontations of political powers, then we are putting the Games at risk,” he said.
That aversion to politics didn’t stop Bach from stepping into the fray this autumn, when tennis player Peng Shuai alleged that a senior official in the Chinese government had sexually assaulted her. After the revelation, Peng disappeared from public view – leading to questions about her safety.
The IOC then held a video call between Bach and Peng that confirmed she was in China and unharmed. Some called this a publicity stunt, meant to keep questions about Peng’s safety from derailing the upcoming Winter Games.
A private meeting with Bach and Peng was held in Beijing during the Games. The IOC has declined to say whether the committee believed Peng’s initial claim that she had been sexually assaulted. Bach said that the IOC would call for an official inquiry into Peng’s initial sexual assault accusations only if she had asked it to do so.
This unserious handling of alleged corruption and abuse at the highest level surely influences national Olympic committees and Olympic governing bodies down the line. The most shocking example has been the ongoing role of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and USA Gymnastics in enabling and covering up the largest sex abuse scandal in the history of sports.
Larry Nassar, the US Olympic women’s gymnastics team doctor, molested more than 500 children and young women including Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and many other accomplished athletes.
My own abuse by Nassar began when I was eight and training under his close friend John Geddert, the 2012 US Olympic gymnastics coach. Geddert took his own life in 2021 after being charged with 24 felonies in connection with the abuse of young gymnasts. Most of those who enabled Nassar’s abuse for more than two decades have never been brought to justice.
Multiple investigations, including a report by the US Department of Justice inspector general, found that officials from USA Gymnastics, the USOPC and the FBI failed to stop Nassar’s abuse despite years of complaints and warning signs.
About all this, Thomas Bach said: “The IOC is deeply shocked and saddened by the abuse scandal in US Gymnastics.” But it took no action against USOPC or USA Gymnastics for their role in the scandal.
This again fails to see the bigger picture. It would be hard to name an Olympic sport that has not had a sexual abuse scandal. All too often, the victims are the most vulnerable athletes – children.
The Olympics has become a multibillion-dollar enterprise, and the lust for money and medals by the IOC, the national organisations and the Olympic governing bodies has overwhelmed any consideration for the health and safety of the athletes. We have learned through hard experience that we cannot depend upon these self-interested entitles to investigate their own abuses and impose needed reforms.
The impetus for reform must come from the outside, from democratic countries that host future Games, from corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Intel, Airbnb, Procter & Gamble, Visa, Toyota, and NBC, and even from the worldwide viewing audience that makes the Games bankable.
Primetime television audiences for the Olympics have been declining and viewing figures for the scandal-plagued Beijing Winter Games were at an all-time low. Maybe that’s a message the IOC will hear.
Sarah Klein is a civil attorney and advocate for survivors of sexual abuse