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Abuse Advocate: Sexual Predators Prey on Athletes' "Steely Eyed Focus"


(An earlier version of this story and the current audio version includes an incorrect characterization of Gabel's statement. It initially and incorrectly read "Gabel admitted to the behavior." Mr. Gabel admitted to a "brief, inappropriate relationship" with a fellow teammate.)

U.S. Speedskating's turmoil continues as new developments hit late Tuesday. A group of short-track speedskaters and their supporters filed a Section 10 complaint with the U.S. Olympic Committee, asking it to put U.S. Speedskating on probation and increase USOC oversight. They say the governing body hasn’t addressed grievances they brought to light last August.

Meanwhile, it’s currently unclear what will happen next in the wake of last week’s allegations that skater Bridie Farrell made on this program that she was sexually abused by fellow skater Andy Gabel. He went on to become president of U.S. Speedskating. Gabel admitted to an "inappropriate relationship" last Friday and resigned from his positions with the International Skating Union and U.S. Speedskating over the weekend.

In her interviews on WUWM, Farrell made reference to the work being done by the Women’s Sports Foundation to ensure the safety of athletes. But why are athletes vulnerable in the first place?

Nancy Hogshead-Makar is the senior director of advocacy for the foundation – and winner of three Olympic gold medals in swimming.

She says organized sports provide an opportunity for sexual molesters to groom their victims, since coaches and athletes spend a lot of time alone together.

"In athletics, there's a natural and appropriate focus on the body, as to how somebody feels, and how the muscles are working, the coach and athlete talk about that," she says. "And so very easily it can slip into that inappropriate (level)."

Hogshead-Makar also cites the enormous power dynamic that exists between coaches and very focused athletes.

"A teacher would never consider telling a student when to go to bed, when to take a rest, what to eat," she says. "Coaches can really regulate an athlete's life to the smallest detail."

An athlete's "singleminded focusedness" to win and be the best also makes them particularly more vulnerable to these kinds of situations, she says. An athlete makes all kinds of sacrifices, so they are "particularly groomable" if "it's like this is part of what it takes to be able to get there."

"You're in a culture, it's akin to being a solider," Hogshead-Makar says. "You're told to buck up, do exactly as your told and you can achieve infamy if you follow this path right here."

Hogshead-Makar says Bridie Farrell's case is an example of how a young person gets groomed into not telling anyone for years, but she credits the speedskater with coming forward after "only 15 years."

"Most of the women I talk to, and there have been a great number of them, it takes them 25 years before they're ready to come out and talk about it," she says. "Meanwhile that coach is still out there molesting."

But Farrell, she says, provides a great example for other victims considering coming forward with their own stories.

"She spoke so clearly, so well, so vulnerably," Hogshead-Makar says of Farrell. "She really took a very powerful stand against what had happened to her. She really came through with the right motive. People heard that, and I think he heard that, and that's only going to encourage more people to come forward and to get the bad actors out."

While parents must be particularly vigilant about making sure these relationships are appropriate, Hogshead-Makar says club sports also need to put more protections in place. She says a designated neutral person would allow athletes to come forward with complaints of sexual harassment and abuse in an industry where athletes often don't get the chance to say "no" to coaches.

"You're in a culture, it's akin to being a solider. You're told to buck up, do exactly as your told and you can achieve infamy if you follow this path right here." -Nancy Hogshead-Makar

Hogshead-Makar says there are no statutes or incentives for club sports that coerce them into actively seeking out and removing "bad actors." Most schools and businesses have legal incentives, like Title IX and Title VII, to weed out inappropriate behaviors. The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act also prevents national governing bodies, like U.S. speedskating, and the USOC from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, origin, and religion - which includes sexual harassment and abuse. But this only applies when an athlete has made the Olympic team - i.e. "if someone molesting you is keeping you from making the team." And Hogshead-Makar says that means, in cases like Bridie Farrell's, the act wouldn't apply.

Recently though, the USOC also passed an internal regulation stating that if national governing bodies, like U.S. Speedskating or U.S. Swimming, want to get funding from the International Olympic Committee or the USOC, they must have policies in place prohibiting coaches from abusing athletes. But she says that only applies to coaches explicitly hired by the national governing body.

She says the statute of limitations and the high standard of reasonable doubt in criminal law makes many victims hesitant to even go to the police, because "it's such a traumatic process." Moreover, those who do come forward often face a lot of negative reactions.

"I don't care if you were raped under the most egregious circumstances, there will always be a voice or two out there to say, 'What were you wearing?' and 'You were coming on to him,'" she says. "You just have to be ready for that. Sadly it's part of being a woman in our society."

But Hogshead-Makar says abusers shouldn't think they can get away with their crimes.

"These women do grow up, they have their own families and that's what triggered a number of people to call the Women's Sports Foundation, to call us," Hogshead-Makar says. "Their kid becomes roughly the same age that they were molested, and now they really want to do something about it...but I do hope that molesters are learning the lesson that eventually these women are going to talk about.

"They don't stay 15 years old forever."

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