This past year, the #metoo movement has sent shockwaves across the entire world. Sadly, some of the most unsettling revelations have been connected to the Olympic Games, an event that is meant to serve as a beacon of empowerment and inspiration. The horrific story of Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics Team doctor convicted of sexually abusing dozens of girls – is just the beginning. At the 2016 Games in Rio, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) hastily created a safeguarding program in response to allegations of athletes sexually harassing local domestic workers. Ultimately, there’s no way of knowing how widespread abuse has been in the Games. In the words of Prince Feisal of Jordan, a member of the IOC, the Nassar scandal “happened in a prosperous country with a powerful Olympic committee and the resources to protect athletes. Imagine countries and federations who've got nothing."
This is why it’s so heartening that major reform efforts were put into place heading into the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. Their impact is already being felt.
Four sexual violence support facilities – known as Gender Equality Support Centres – have been set up near sports facilities in Pyeongchang, fully funded by local Gangwon-Do Province. These centers, unprecedented in Olympic history, provide counseling, medical support and legal advice for anyone in the area, including athletes, spectators, press, volunteers and locals. These centers are supplemented by the Olympic Committee’s safeguarding program. Although only in its third year, the program’s director, Susan Greinig, has been working to prevent sexual assault at the Games since 2004. "It used to be frustrating to make people listen," she recently told ABC News. "But they are listening now."
According to Greinig, the more elite an athlete is, the more likely they are to be victimized, because they have more to lose by stepping forward with allegations. And abusers know this. They, like professional traffickers and others skilled at sexual exploitation, understand how to manipulate power dynamics to get what they want while keeping their victims quiet. As ECPAT-USA’s Policy Director Jason Matthews recently wrote:
“Whether modeling, acting or elite sports, it is hard for parents to know what is normal, what should be expected, whom to trust. And it is even harder for a 12 year old girl, suddenly thrust into the spotlight, being asked to do almost superhuman things with her body, isolated from her usual friends and family support network, to gauge what is actually happening. And that is precisely the space that child sexual predators of all stripes like to occupy, whether they are pimps, traffickers, trusted family members, or team physicians.”
Finally, change is coming from our lawmakers. On February 14, The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sporting Act was signed into law with broad bipartisan support, thanks to the efforts of Senator Diane Feinstein. The bill requires amateur athletic organizations to report child abuse to law enforcement. Finally, coaches are now mandated reporters, just like teachers, doctors and social workers. The new law also changes the Ted Stevens Amateur and Olympic Sport Act – the law that organizes US Olympic participation – to require all amateur athletic organizations to establish a mechanism for easy reporting of sexual abuse allegations. Lastly, the law requires that all training facilities adopt policies to prevent minors from being left alone with non-parental adults without observation by another adult.
Back on the ground in Pyeongchang, one of the Gender Equality Support Centre staffers, a Catholic nun named Sister Droste, reports that she has received four complaints of harassment at this year’s Olympics. For the first time in the history of the Games, people have a place they can go for help – and they are taking advantage of it.
"#metoo allowed us all to see that it's not the victim's fault, being sexually harassed,” Droste told ABC News. “It's not because of their appearance. It gives courage to the victims. Having equal rights, men and women, makes it possible for us to accomplish freedom."