ACTIVISM WITHIN SPORTS
The experience of a whistleblower in an American Olympic NGB
What is “within-sport” activism?
• Taking a stand against treatment of athletes,
within one’s own sport, that is exploitative or
in any way harmful, by authority figures of
that sport’s national governing body (NGB).
• Speaking truth to power.
How have Olympics fans perceived speed skating?
• A pure, time-trial sport
• Effort = reward
• Wholesome, Midwestern values
• A close-knit, “family” sport
• Great champions (Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair,
Dan Jansen, Apolo Ohno, Shani Davis)
Recently Exposed Problems in US Speedskating
• Physical, mental, and emotional abuse of athletes
by National Team coach
• Skate sabotage under pressure from coach
• Sexual abuse of athletes
• Poor governance
• Lack of financial transparency
• Drastic underperformance at 2014 Olympics in
• Labeled “the most dysfunctional” sport in Sochi
Bridie Farrell, a speed skater who, at age 15, was molested by former Olympian and USS
President Andy Gabel, insisted that Gabel be removed from the Speedskating Hall of
Bonnie Blair, a member of U.S. Speedskating’s Hall of Fame Committee, replied,
“Other sports Halls of Fame have convicted felons in them.”
-USS Spring Membership Meeting, Hall of Fame Committee, May 2013
of US Speedskating
Culture In Action
• “Problem NGBs” have lost sight of the
Fundamental Principles of Olympism.
• Describe the culture of these organizations.
• My experience as a US Speedskating athlete and
– Examples of conflict
– Pressures faced by activist athletes
– Methods used
– What was accomplished
– What remains to be done
Fundamental Principles of Olympism
• Sport, culture, and education
• Joy of effort
• Social responsibility
• Respect for fundamental ethical principles
• No discrimination
• Friendship and solidarity
• Fair play
• Good governance
…Contrast with the Culture of U.S. Speedskating
• No place for independent, critical thinking
• Leadership looks the other way while coaches sleep with
• “Joy of effort” is killed by abusive coaching
• Athletes treated as “expendable”
• Attitude of “insiders vs outsiders”
• Abuse of “unfettered discretion” in team selection
• Governance out of compliance with federal law (Ted Stevens
Olympic and Amateur Sports Act)
Healthy NGB Structure
Principles of Olympism
Goals: Winning, growth of the
Values: Safety, fair play, fun
Unhealthy NGB Structure
B.O.D. and Staff
Media, fans, sponsors
Athletes (Adversely affected by their own NGB)
with an underlying
motivator of greed
Status advancement (IOC)
Access to sex
Abuse of power
Exert control over
Timeline of my speed skating career
Major falling-out with USS at end of my years as a Junior
2006 Olympic Team selection
corrupt and subjective
Why and how I was blackballed by US
Speedskating at age 17
• I moved to Salt Lake with 6 other skaters to train with a coach
who promised to train us.
• The oval never opened that season, and the coach abandoned
our team, as well as the developmental clubs he had set up.
• I wrote to USS to ask for help, on behalf of myself, my team,
and the local kids’ clubs.
• The USS president called my host parents and said, “Eva
Rodansky is a no-talent troublemaker looking for someone to
blame for her failures.”
• Decided to go to college and grad school. When I came back,
6 years later, some skaters called me “the notorious” because
of the way USS talked about me in meetings.
Comeback and Struggles
• Resumed training in January 2001.
• Made my first World Cup team in the fall of
• Lack of funding was my #1 struggle.
• For most of my competitive years, I worked in
a biotech lab 22 miles away from the Oval,
about 25 hours per week (in addition to 30-40
hours of training).
Exploitation of Athletes’ Labor
“According to their Mission Statement, “The vision of the USOC is to
enable America’s athletes to realize their Olympic and Paralympic
It just seems ethically questionable that this charity’s mission allows
for the exploitation of... athletes’ labors to create such
considerable wealth for so many executives and administrators
while leaving such a difficult financial path for the athletes
~Nathan Ikon Crumpton (U.S. Athletic Trust)
Because of the athletes’ big dreams, they are easily exploited!
Example #1: “Sold Behind Our Backs”
• When Andy Gabel was USS president, he
negotiated a sponsorship deal for the team with
Qwest (a phone company).
• Made deal without involving the athletes.
• No additional funding for athletes.
• Gabel tried to force top skaters to back out of
individual sponsor deals.
• Major conflict between top skaters and NGB
• Loss of team sponsor.
Example #2: The Team Director’s “Female
• An“open secret” that the long track high performance
director was having an affair with one of the female
national team skaters.
• A 20-year history of romantic involvement with
athletes he coached.
• The USS leadership knew about this and did nothing.
• 2002-06: He was the main person responsible for
talent ID and Olympic Team selection, and got to make
decisions between his mistress and her rivals.
• Fired after 2006, in part for his role in destroying the
women’s long track team.
Example #3: The National Team “Experiment”
• 2003-04 season: The National Team coach
admitted to overtraining our team
• “For the purpose of collecting data.”
• “With no concern for individual results.”
How USS Discourages Complaints
• Breakdown of due process.
• Delay tactics.
• Abuse of team selection subjectivity against
• “You tell your story in the media, and we’ll make sure
the media never cover your career again.” (Yes – they have
made this threat, and have the power to make it happen.)
• Depoliticizing athletes who had complained in the past.
• USS leadership tearing down certain athletes’ and
coaches’ reputations in the media. (Most recently during
Forces Preventing Athletes from
• Fear of retaliation from NGB.
– A threat to their image in the media
– Conflict is a major energy cost
• Responsibility to people helping them: Family,
coaches, teammates, sponsors, the NGB itself.
• Loyalty to a particular individual.
• Desire to keep friendships and positive memories
of the sport.
• Those whose voice would have the greatest
impact also have the most to lose!
Why did I do it?
• Inspired by life experiences and people outside the
• Belief that doing the right thing is more important than
• IN SPEEDSKATING, I WAS EXPENDABLE.
Things in USS were so wrong, and so unfair, that I
knew I would never have the speedskating career I
wanted and knew I deserved. So, I decided to use
my career in the sport as a way of trying to reform
it, to make it better for those who would come after
Role of the Activist Athlete
• Know the pattern of behavior by the NGB
• Have confidence in your own athletic abilities.
• Tell your story
– To educate others
– To make connections with like-minded people
– Work towards reform
Role of the Activist Athlete
• The actual ability to make reforms may
depend on factors beyond the athlete’s
• Share your story to help the next generation
of athletes and their parents.
• Turn a negative experience into something
meaningful that helps others.
ACTIVISM WITHIN SPORTS
Speaking Truth To Power
Review: Sources of Conflict Between
Athletes and National Governing Body
• Rankings or team selection
• Athlete sponsorship rights
• National Team coach/athlete conflict
• Referee decisions
• NGB’s denial of benefits earned
• Private teams in conflict with NGB decisions
Mechanisms of Complaint
• Talk to athlete representative (to USS Board or AAC)
• Write letter to NGB leadership
• Present concerns at the annual Membership Meeting
• File a Code of Conduct against offending individual
• File a Grievance
• Contact the USOC Athlete Ombudsman
• Contact the USOC SafeSport representative
• File a Section 9 with the USOC (Denial of the right to
compete in a protected competition)
– Section 9’s are expedited due to time constraints
• File a Section 10 with the USOC (NGB out of compliance
with the Sports Act)
Athlete Perceptions of the
Mechanisms of Complaint
• Many athletes are not informed as to how they can
stand up for themselves.
• Perception that these methods are ineffective at best,
and lead to retaliation, at worst.
• When I was competing:
– Tried bringing concerns to membership meeting, going to
athlete rep, and writing a letter.
– Did not believe that filing a Grievance or Section 9 would
– Would have liked to know that there are Sports Law
attorneys willing to help amateur athletes pro bono.
The Protocol: Major Topics Covered
• Image vs. reality of elite athlete funding.
• How USS is run like a private club to benefit a
few while excluding others.
• The extent of the subjectivity and favoritism
USS has worked into a supposedly “pure”
sport of racing against the clock.
Benefits and Results of Blogging
• Learned that I was not alone.
• Gained allies and mentors.
• “You said things that needed to be said about US
Speedskating for years, but nobody had the guts.”
• But…I also put myself at risk for retaliation
– Coach who traveled with the team was told, by his bosses, not to work
– My agent was denied a press pass to a competition and was told,
“Nobody cares about your athlete.”
– Could count on being left off the Olympic Team if it was close (due to
the subjectivity of the selection criteria).
Book Published in 2010
• Requested by fans of The
• Positive response from
younger skaters and
• Threatened with lawsuit
in 2012 by a USS official I
• Boycotting short track
skaters asked me for
Athletes for a Positive Training
• 2012: About 2/3 of the short track National Team
boycotted the program because of abuse by their
• They had tried bringing their concerns to the USS
Board, and going to the USOC Athlete Ombudsman.
• I connected them with attorney Edward Williams,
one of the original authors of the Ted Stevens
Olympic and Amateur Sports Act.
APTE and Supporters’ Reform Work
• A Grievance was filed against USS by some 20
athletes and supporters, detailing USS’s
noncompliance with the Sports Act (August 2012).
• Abusive coaches resigned under pressure before the
fall World Cups.
• The breaking of the Andy Gabel sex abuse scandal in
March 2013 forced the USOC to step in. (Chicago Tribune
• Complainants filed a Section 10 against USS with the
USOC; settlement agreement in fall of 2013.
APTE’s Strengths and Limitations
• A united group supported by an expert in the
field (Ed Williams).
• Hundreds of thousands of dollars of work (Ed did
pro bono on the athletes’ behalf; USS paid their
• The USOC still would not have acted
if it hadn’t been for scandals
breaking in the media.
Hope for Reform?
• The USOC does not hold its NGBs accountable, and the
athletes (and their attorneys) have had to force NGBs
to comply with federal law!
• Congressional investigation led by George Miller (D-
California) into organizations that serve youth sports.
• Focuses on sexual abuse of athletes by authority
figures of these sports.
• Congress may step in and force the USOC to do a
better job of protecting athletes.
• If NGBs were forced to cover athletes’ legal fees, they
might clean up their act.
Where is “Olympism?”
• Athletes learn the hard way that “Olympism”
is just a thin façade with NGBs like US
• Mechanisms for protecting athletes have
broken down: Non-responsiveness and
• Pressure from Congress and from the media is
needed for meaningful reform.