Is the USOC Running a Sex Trafficking Ring?
A wide-ranging civil lawsuit alleges that the institution knew about serial abuse by Jean and Steven Lopez, implicating it in a system that allowed the sexual trafficking of four female athletes
A new lawsuit, filed on May 4 in federal court in Denver, alleges that former Olympic taekwondo coach Jean Lopez and his brother, three-time Olympic medalist Steven Lopez, sexually abused or raped four female taekwondo athletes when the victims were teenagers and young adults.
The filing adds a notable twist to litigation of this type, claiming that the Lopez brothers and two named organizations—the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and USA Taekwondo (the national governing body, or NGB, that effectively runs the sport)—have been complicit in “sexual abuse, exploitation, and trafficking” during episodes of alleged abuse that spanned more than 20 years. According to the suit, the organization’s failure to adequately protect the athletes left them in the hands of men who they knew were sexual predators, in situations that involved international travel and monetary gain.
“Starting in 1996-97 and continuing until 2018,” says the complaint, “[the] USOC and USA TKD knowingly participated in a venture to transport and traffic plaintiffs … around the globe to be used for the sexual benefit” of the Lopez brothers, along with unnamed coaches and officials who, the suit says, “will be uncovered during discovery in this case.”
The suit is the latest development in the ongoing controversy surrounding Jean and Steven Lopez, two of the most influential figures in U.S. taekwondo. On April 3, after a three-year probe, the U.S. Center for Safe Sport—an independent investigative arm that handles abuse and harassment allegations involving Olympic athletes—issued a recommendation to the USOC that led to Jean Lopez being permanently banned from participating in the Olympics or any USOC events. SafeSport’s investigation of Steven Lopez is still in progress.
In the current climate of #MeToo comeuppance, this legal strategy represents a seismic culpability shift if a judge allows the case to proceed with all claims intact. According to the suit, the USOC’s executives have a well-documented history of allowing children to train and travel with known serial abusers, as illustrated by the Lopez cases.
“By 2006, USA TKD had received written and verbal complaints that Jean Lopez and Steven Lopez were routinely sexually exploiting, assaulting, and raping multiple female athletes that were entrusted into the protection … of the USOC and USA TKD,” it says. “The USOC knew or was willfully blind that the Lopez brothers represented a clear and present danger to young female athletes.”
The suit also says that the USOC has routinely offloaded its oversight responsibilities onto NGBs like USA Taekwondo, despite the fact that the USOC funded these organizations, paid the coaches’ salaries, and bankrolled international travel expenses of both the alleged perpetrators and their victims.
“Ignoring repeated reports of sexual misconduct,” the suit claims, “the USOC has prioritized commercial success over safety by ignoring and then covering up complaints, deferring and diverting investigations, and continuing to financially support NGBs that tolerate or even facilitate sexual abuse by coaches and others.”
Currently, there are 47 NGBs that oversee a range of sports represented in the Summer and Winter Olympics, everything from high-profile events like swimming, gymnastics, and figure skating to less-publicized pursuits like team handball and table tennis. In recent years, other sports under the Olympic umbrella have been the target of explosive allegations involving sexual abuse—most notably USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming.
An important legislative development that affects the new lawsuit—and that is mentioned in it—is the Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2018, passed by Congress in January. This law was designed to give athletes and NGBs better pathways for addressing allegations of abuse. It extends the statute of limitations to ten years after a victim discovers a violation or injury, and it also declares that the USOC, NGBs, and clubs will not be liable for defamation claims brought by coaches and others removed for misconduct. In these ways, the Act clears the way for greater accountability. “This Congressional action signals welcome and long-awaited progress for elite athletes who are survivors of abuse in their sports,” the suit maintains.
All told, the USOC and its NGBs represent hundreds of thousands of athletes, whose performance and successes boost the USOC’s reputation, sponsorships, television deals, and revenue. Even if an athlete would prefer to bypass the USOC to make an Olympic bid, they can’t: Each NGB is responsible for selecting the athletes and coaches for the Pan American Games, world championships, world cups, and Olympic Games. In the case of USA Taekwondo, those selections are done at the discretion of the sport’s Olympic coach, and for the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Games, that person was Jean Lopez.
In the lawsuit, taekwondo athletes Heidi Gilbert, Gabriella Joslin, Amber Means, and Mandy Meloon detail their allegations of abuse and rape at the hands of Jean and Steven Lopez. For example, Gilbert alleges that, in 2002, when she was 20, Jean Lopez wrestled her to the ground and began “dry humping” her until he ejaculated in his pants. In 2003, Gilbert alleges, Jean drugged her drink and sexually assaulted her while she was unable to move. According to the complaint: “Employees [of USA Taekwondo] threatened Heidi and warned her not to tell anyone about Jean’s sexual assaults,” so she never reported what had happened.
The suit, filed by lawyers based in Indiana, Kansas, and Colorado—Jonathan Little, Rex A. Sharp, Ryan C. Hudson, Larkin E. Walsh, and Daniel A. Lipman—asks for a jury trial and seeks punitive damages. The next step is a response by plaintiffs.