Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for sticking with us on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We're continuing our conversation about Olympic Gymnastics. Just a note to listeners, we're going to discuss sexual assault in this conversation. At the press conference following the USA women's gymnastics team's silver medal when Simone Biles indicated there were many variables making this year's Olympic Games stressful.
One of those factors is likely the reality that this is the first summer Olympics since Larry Nasser was convicted in 2018 following decades of abusing the girls and young women entrusted to his care as a team doctor for America's Olympic gymnasts. Just how has the International Olympic Committee or IOC changed its policies and protocols to prevent harm and abuse within the games and is it enough? Here to help us answer these questions is Jennifer Gerson, a reporter at the 19th. Welcome to the show, Jennifer.
Jennifer Gerson: Hey, thank you so much, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's just start with what are the current sexual assault protocols in the Olympic Village?
Jennifer Gerson: That is a great question. The direct answer is that there is a safeguarding officer present in the villages and there's some centers within the villages for reporting if there's an incident of sexual violence of any kind. The longer answer is it's hard to really parse what that means in practicality for athletes. The existing protocols for sexual assault reporting as they stand today has been in place at least since 2016 through the IOC.
In 2018 is when they set up these centers within the villages to make reporting seemingly easier. If you talk to athletes and people who work with athletes, there's still marks in terms of what this actually means and how not just easy but tenable it is to make a report and know that something is going to happen when that happens.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm puzzling at this moment. We actually know an awful lot about sexual assault reporting, and about not only the challenges and difficulties of reporting but also that the presence of law enforcement not only doesn't always make that easier but can sometimes actually be the source of these assaults. I'm wondering [chuckles] if there is discussion with the athletes, if there's any set of rules around this, really law enforcement is the answer?
Jennifer Gerson: How the safeguarding officer's office works within the IOC is that once a report is made by an athlete to anyone, and in theory, anyone who works with athletes, coaches, trainers, anyone who's part of the Olympic entourage in any capacity is subject to a mandatory reporting requirement. Whether people actually know this is another question. That's something that came up in my own reporting that there's a lot of, maybe out lack of clarity but a lot of people I think, who just have not been even informed of that policy. That's a real concern amongst athletes and people who work with athletes that people may not know about the mandatory reporting requirements.
Even after an athlete does disclose to someone, that person is then supposed to go on and make a report through the safeguarding officer in the villages. Then from that point, the safeguarding officer makes the call. Are they getting local law enforcement involved? Are they pursuing some other means of investigation? It's even tricky at that point to even parse what's even happening.
For some people, I think law enforcement involvement would almost be a best-case scenario to know that some action has been taken. That's part of what's really tricky about this too. The language around how this is structured is pretty loose. I think there's just a real general lack of clarity for athletes, and their entourages on what actually does happen [laughs] when a report is filed. I think it's a real concern for a lot of people right now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jennifer, as you were walking us through that, I've been a college professor 20 some odd years. It sounds an awful lot like some of the challenges that occur on college campuses with someone to whom you report, a lot of young people living together. We know that sexual assault is a reality and a far too common one on college campuses. What do we know about the prevalence of assault in Olympic Villages?
Jennifer Gerson: That's a great question and a great analogy because that's something that came up in my reporting, again, where that comparison to what's happening on college campuses was frequently made and is really a good point of reference and something that fortunately most people are familiar with because it is still prevalent on college campuses. It's not that different at the Olympics. Depending on how different studies are modeled and the parameters of how the studies were set forth is somewhere between 2% and 50% of athletes across the board have reported in their lifetimes extreme some form of sexual violence. Up to 90% have reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment.
We know that sexual violence of all kinds is a real problem in athletics. Some of the risk factors for these things to occur are the elite athletics, which the Olympics is certainly as elite as it gets, and traveling and being away from your home base, home community, and anytime when you're participating in your sport on the road, which again, is happening at the Olympics.
This year, even more significantly so with what's going on with COVID and the current protocols for that, people's families aren't with them. They're really on their own at these games. Basically, every major risk factor that could possibly be in place is definitely in place for the Olympics making this a real challenge for athletes. We know this is an issue and now every red flag is up in terms of what could make this even more likely to happen.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of red flags, a US fencer was allowed to compete in the Olympics this year even after teammates reported accusations of sexual assault. What does that tell us?
Jennifer Gerson: It tells us a lot about I think the reality that exists for a lot of athletes and folks who work with athletes and are concerned about these issues. The situation with the fencer who had been part of the Columbia University fencing team at the start of his career, and that's where the allegations against him stem was from his time at Columbia, again, tell us a lot about the realities of these reporting systems.
Complaints were made within Columbia's Title IX system, complaints have been made within the US Center for SafeSport, which is the independent organization that ever since the master case has been a clearinghouse for investigation of sexual assault allegations. Claims you can make, people are making reports, reporting isn't the issue which, I think, again, is the concern that seemingly mechanisms are set up for reporting doesn't mean that much is actually happening from that point. That's what's happened with the fencer. There's been three allegations of sexual violence against him.
He's still in the Olympics and the solution that seemingly has been come up with as well, he just won't stay at the villages, which in the times we live in, and when we know that so much of sexual violence, especially amongst athletes, and people I spoke with in my reporting, over and over again, what came up was just the presence of the role that technology, phones, social media play, and sometimes facilitating the situations in which sexual violence takes place. People are still on their phones even if they aren't in the Olympic Village together. Things could be happening to help contribute to a situation that could be dangerous for some people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jennifer Gerson is a reporter at The 19th. Thank you for joining us and helping us remember, even as we're enjoying the games, we got to protect the athletes.
Jennifer Gerson: Thank you so much, Melissa. It's been so great speaking with you today. I really appreciate your time.
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