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November 18, 2013

Skating for Justice

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of H. DARR BEISER/USA TODAY

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Even Nikki Meyer's mother, who chaperoned a USOEC juniors program at Northern Michigan the summer before her daughter enrolled there, says she also saw a young girl emerge from Gabel's room late one night. She reported it to the other chaperones but says she was told to mind her own business. "I remember my mom told me not to trust him," recalls Meyer. "I just thought, Mom, whatever."

Nonetheless, after an investigation, the Northern Michigan report concluded that the allegations against Gabel could not be substantiated, and no actions were ever taken against him. Neither U.S. Speedskating nor the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) will say whether they received that report or even knew of the investigation.

After Farrell and Meyer came forward, U.S. Speedskating retained the Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin to investigate the claims against Gabel. As of October, Sidley Austin had yet to release its report. Gabel, who now runs a Las Vegas–based medical equipment company, nonetheless resigned from his powerful post at the International Skating Union and from the U.S. Speedskating Hall of Fame Committee.

U.S. Speedskating isn't eager to discuss Farrell's claims. Shortly after I arrived at the Utah Olympic Oval to meet Farrell, Tamara Castellano, U.S. Speedskating's spokesperson at the time, forbade me from speaking to anyone but Farrell while I was there. She insisted on being on the phone during an interview I did with one of Farrell's coaches (who does not even work for U.S. Speedskating) and warned me not to ask him questions about Gabel. The president of U.S. Speedskating, Mike Plant, has refused interview requests from Marie Claire. In an e-mailed statement, Plant said, "We have a support and service system in place—which includes access to the SafeSport initiative—to ensure athletes can focus all of their efforts and resources on training."

Launched in 2010 by the USOC in the wake of the physical- and sex-abuse scandals, the SafeSport program was created to address issues of abuse and harassment, as well as hazing, across all 47 sports that it oversees. All the governing bodies are required to adopt minimum standards by the end of this year. But the program, critics say, is riddled with loopholes and problems. While the governing bodies are required to ban romantic relationships between athletes and anyone in a "direct supervisory or evaluative" position, or in instances where there is a clear imbalance of power, SafeSport does not, for example, specify how or to whom a victim should report violations. There's also no formal policy outlining how abuse allegations are to be investigated, who investigates them, and what punishments are handed down in the event they are warranted. Each sport's governing body is required to inform coaches about the program, but there's no mention of informing athletes.

KATHERINE STARR, an Olympic swimmer for Britain who was raped by her coach when she was 14 (her coach was ultimately sentenced to 17 years in prison in the U.K. for raping two other swimmers), founded Safe4Athletes last year to push for more stringent policies that protect athletes from abusive coaches. Among its recommendations: Every sport club or program should have a volunteer "athlete welfare advocate" whom competitors can approach confidentially about any issue, and who can then solicit guidance and resources on behalf of the athlete. And rather than leaving the fate of coaches to the governing bodies, Safe4Athletes recommends cases of abuse be adjudicated by a panel comprised of one representative the athlete picks, one the coach picks, and one they mutually agree to. Already, an estimated 175 gymnastics clubs around the country, as well as the city of Philadelphia school system, have adopted the guidelines. Yet, Starr says the USOC has no interest in her program. "[SafeSport] protects the governing body, not the athlete," she says. "The investigations are weak. It looks like window dressing."

Since SafeSport is so new, it remains to be seen how effective it will be. But one recent case that was investigated after SafeSport guidelines were announced does not bode well for its success. In 2011, a member of the short-track team informed U.S. Speedskating that teammates were being emotionally and physically abused by their coach Jae Su Chun. But no one from U.S. Speedskating followed up on the claims, says one athlete. In March 2012, the athlete followed up with the USOC, which connected her with Malia Arrington, its newly minted director of ethics and safe sport. Arrington told the athlete that she needed to hear from other athletes to substantiate the claims, yet after those athletes contacted Arrington, they still heard nothing back. Over the next six months, more than a dozen athletes ultimately split from the national team, refusing to work with the coach. Arrington then recommended that U.S. Speedskating hire the law firm White & Case to investigate the claims—as well as an incident where a skater said the coach directed him to damage an opponent's skate. But that December, White & Case issued a report that found that the coach's alleged behaviors "do not constitute physical abuse, and collectively they do not constitute a pattern of abuse" and that there was not enough evidence to determine that the coach ordered the skate tampering.

Shortly after, the International Skating Union conducted an investigation into the skate-tampering incident. It found that the coach had created an intimidating training environment that led to tampering, but there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that he directly ordered it. It suspended Chun from international competition for two years, but by then he'd already resigned.


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