The key to recovery from a sports scandal

One big difference between Russia’s doping scandal and the sex abuse of American female gymnasts: contrition in their governing institutions.

Athletes from the U.S. attend the closing ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Feb. 25.

 Two of the biggest scandals in recent sports history were back in the news last week. Each in its own way continues to provide a lesson on how contrition is a necessary step toward redemption.

And no, we’re not talking about Tiger Woods winning a major golf tournament on Sunday – with full fan delight – eight years after his humble apology for sexual misdeeds.

The larger of the two scandals was the serial sexual abuse of girls and women by the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar. Several institutions were negligent or slow in responding to his conduct. But at the top of the food chain was the United States Olympic Committee, which oversees national governing bodies for individual sports.

While the USOC still faces lawsuits from affected athletes, it admitted deep regret Sept. 20 for its failure to safeguard the sex-abuse survivors. And in appointing the first woman to serve as a permanent chief executive officer, it has signaled deep changes aimed at putting the welfare of athletes ahead of winning medals or making money. 

The incoming CEO, Sarah Hirshland, held back tears in a press conference as she said that now is a time “to reflect and respect the brave survivors who have taught us all so much. A time for change and for action.” She promised that athletes’ concerns will be better heard through various channels and that the USOC will be a better watchdog over the national governing bodies.

The USOC was also involved in the creation of the US Center for SafeSport, an independent body that now adjudicates abuse allegations. And it hired a law firm to investigate how Mr. Nassar’s abuses went unchecked.

The true test of the USOC’s reforms will come when all athletes are no longer afraid to speak out about abuses by coaches and others in authority. “We have to ... get to the root of broad athlete support, not just performance support,” Ms. Hirshland said.

Now contrast that response with one made last week in the other big sports scandal.

On Sept. 20, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) decided to reinstate Russia’s anti-doping agency, ending a ban of nearly three years imposed after state-sponsored doping of hundreds of Russian athletes before the 2014 Winter Olympics.

WADA had originally demanded that Russian officials accept a report confirming their government’s role and that they release data from a Moscow testing laboratory. Instead, it opted for a compromise, allowing Russia to only point to a few guilty individuals and to merely promise access to the lab.

Athletes and others who demand the Olympics be clean of doping were rightly outraged. The decision to lift the ban “casts a dark shadow over the credibility of the anti-doping movement,” said Linda Helleland, vice-president of WADA, who voted against the decision.

WADA’s actions could soon allow the official return of Russia to the Games with only a little contrition on its part and little assurance of independent checking on the testing lab. Russia, in other words, has not fully demonstrated a compelling modesty and a clear determination to operate at the highest standards of Olympic sports.

Institutions involved in sports scandals must be compelled to look in the mirror with unflinching honesty. Rehabilitation is hard work, demanding contrition. Yet it can help ensure trust and fair play in sports. Other interests, such as national pride or money, must be seen as side benefits, not ultimate goals.

Most athletes understand the core values of competition. They, like the rest of us, must encourage governing sports bodies to follow their lead.

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