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U.S. Olympic Committee Plans To Examine Speedskating's Woes

U.S. skater Jessica Smith, in black, is among the Americans who have been kept off the podium in Sochi despite strong performances leading up to the Winter Games. Smith's private coach is Jae Su Chun, who is under a two-year suspension from the International Skating Union.
Damien Meyer
AFP/Getty Images
U.S. skater Jessica Smith, in black, is among the Americans who have been kept off the podium in Sochi despite strong performances leading up to the Winter Games. Smith's private coach is Jae Su Chun, who is under a two-year suspension from the International Skating Union.

For American speedskaters, this Winter Olympics has been defined by controversy over racing suits and disappointment over a lack of podium finishes. Now comes word that the U.S. Olympic Committee will "leave no stone unturned" in looking at how the high hopes of US Speedskating collapsed in Sochi.

The news of a possible inquiry into what went wrong in the 2014 Games led Edward Williams, an attorney who represents speedskaters who have filed complaints with the USOC against US Speedskating, to vent his frustration.

"It has long been my belief that a dysfunctional, non-Sports Act-compliant and broke [national governing body], which provides no direct funding to its athletes and spends more money on lawyers to 'fight' its athletes than it does to support them, is not likely to produce athletes who can achieve consistently at the Olympic level."

Williams is a former USOC board member who has represented athletes since 1974. He also spent four years on the group's Athletes' Advisory Council. Williams believes that the move to bring in Mike Plant as US Speedskating's president last March was a good one — but that the change came too late to right the ship in time for Sochi.

The U.S. skaters' hopes, bolstered by several winning campaigns in the most recent World Cup season, were quickly dashed in Russia, where the Americans failed to finish higher than seventh before US Speedskating announced a wardrobe change last Friday.

As we reported about that change, not everyone on Team USA was convinced the new "Mach 39" suits, introduced by Under Armour just before the Winter Games, were costing the U.S. skaters time on the track. The company also makes the suits worn during the World Cup season.

As the Americans faltered, Dutch skaters have excelled, winning 19 of the 27 speedskating medals awarded so far. Speedskating is a national sport in the Netherlands.

"In my opinion, the Dutch are just sitting deeper and pushing harder,' US Speedskating coach Kip Carpenter told Bloomberg News. "They are just skating better than us."

As USA Today reports, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun is also refusing to blame the suits, in a statement released Tuesday:

"Given our history of strong performances in speedskating, we are disappointed not to have had a podium finish to date in Sochi. After the Games, we will work side by side with US Speedskating to understand how we might better support our athletes, many of whom have already proven themselves to be great champions."

Missing from Blackmun's statement is any mention of the USOC's possible role in US Speedskating's troubles since the Vancouver Olympics. Some athletes filed complaints directly with Blackmun and the USOC about lack of funding, leadership dysfunction and alleged abuse by a coach.

Blackmun and the USOC didn't step in until last March, a year before the Olympics. Plant, an Olympic veteran and executive for the Atlanta Braves, was named board president, and US Speedskating Executive Director Mark Greenwald later resigned.

"The efforts by the USOC to clean up USS ... simply came too late," Williams says.

Update at 9:40 a.m. ET on Feb 19: No Further Comment

USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky tells NPR in an email from Sochi that CEO Blackmun's statement quoted above "is all we have for now."

Update at 5:35 p.m. ET: Reaction From A Former Skater

"For years, US Speedskating has been a dysfunctional governing body," says Eva Rodansky, a former long track skater on the U.S. national team and a critic of US Speedskating.

"If Mr. Blackmun intends to 'leave no stone unturned' as the USOC investigates US Speedskating's underperformance in Sochi, then this investigation should include all of US Speedskating's organizational failures," says Rodansky, who retired eight years ago.

Our original post continues:

Since the Vancouver 2010 Games, speedskaters trying to train for the Sochi Olympics had these distractions:

  • Short track head coach Jae Su Chun resigned under pressure after some skaters accused him of abusive behavior and one said he ordered the sabotage of a Canadian rival's skate. Chun was also suspended by the International Skating Union but continues to coach some Americans privately, creating potential rifts on the team.
  • Former USS President Andy Gabel was accused of sexual abuse by a U.S. athlete last spring. US Speedskating has not released the results of its investigation of the allegations.
  • The organization was reportedly $750,000 in debt in 2012 and athletes complained they were not receiving the funding they needed to train.
  • The USOC has yet to respond to NPR's request for comment. We'll post a response here if we receive one.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.