U.S. senators, including Republican Cory Gardner, looked at the threats and said they’d take their chances Wednesday.
The staredown by federal lawmakers came after the USOPC made a late push for senators to pull back a major component of a proposed overhaul: allowing Congress to vote to dissolve its board of directors and terminate any national governing body, which run specific sports within the U.S.
USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland told key senators in a letter sent Tuesday that giving Congress that power would run afoul of Olympic movement rules and could stop the U.S. from participating in the Games. She included a separate letter from the International Olympic Committee that set out what the proposed law should say and not say to comply with Olympic rules.
The tactic appears to have backfired, showcasing the skepticism the organization formerly known as the U.S. Olympic Committee faces as it seeks to bounce back its handling of the abuse of hundreds of elite and college gymnasts by the former doctor for the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team.
Multiple wide-ranging federal criminal investigations into potential financial and business misconduct throughout the U.S. Olympic system are ongoing.
Lawmakers accused the Olympic committee on Wednesday of being disingenuous, in part because other national Olympic committees with greater political involvement — such as China’s — had not been barred from the Games.
They said the U.S. Olympic committee was hiding behind the IOC to avoid taking responsibility for its past mistakes and evade future scrutiny from Congress. The U.S. Olympic Committee earlier this summer changed its name to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
“I’m not surprised that the U.S. Olympic Committee doesn’t want Congress to have that leverage,” said Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, a Republican who wrote the bill with Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal.
The legislation would also increase athlete representation in U.S. Olympic leadership, among other changes.
Gardner had previously sought a slower path for changes to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which is headquartered in Colorado Springs, by creating a commission to study changes to it. Much of what he wanted will now be included in Moran and Blumenthal’s bill, and which he voted, along with most of the rest of the Senate Commerce committee, to send to the full U.S. Senate for consideration.
“Far from improper, the provision as stated here is critical for ensuring accountability,” said Gardner.
Hirshland had told members of the Senate Commerce Committee: “The International Olympic Committee has made clear that Congress assuming the power to dissolve the USOPC board would violate the Olympic Charter and endanger our recognition by the IOC as a National Olympic Committee.”
The letter she included from the International Olympic Committee said “the law should not stipulate that the executive body of the NOC can be ‘dissolved’ and ‘re-formed’ by decision of a public/government authority.”
A lone voice speaking for Hirshland in the Senate on Wednesday was Utah Republican Mike Lee, a libertarian, who said Congress should not inject itself into the U.S. Olympic movement by taking charge of the committee.