(Reuters) - Like a world-class gymnast, the United States Olympic Committee(USOC) needs to nail a perfect landing to put a damaging sexual abuse scandal behind it ahead of the 2020 Games in Tokyo, sports sponsorship experts said.
The USOC’s announcement this week that it would seek to revoke the status of USA Gymnastics as the national governing body for the sport reflects pressure from fans, athletes and sponsors for a lasting solution for the scandal-plagued organisation.
“If the USOC didn’t take this step now, then they would have had somewhat of a revolt on their hands from athletes and fans,” said Jim Andrews, an independent sponsorship consultant.
USA Gymnastics has been in turmoil since dozens of female gymnasts, including Olympic champions such as Simone Biles, came forward to accuse former team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Nassar was sentenced in February to up to 125 years in prison after some 200 women testified about decades of abuse at his hands.
The U.S. gymnastics team performed well at the world championships in Doha, Qatar, that ended on Sunday, with Biles becoming the first female gymnast in 30 years to claim a medal in all six events at a major competition.
The team’s success meant a solution was not required immediately, Andrews said, but was vital to bring back lost sponsors and fans.
“This is a reflection that the sport needs to move on,” he said. “This has to happen.”
Asked for comment, the USOC said it had nothing to add to its statement from Monday.
As the scandal unfolded, sponsors including Under Armor Inc, Proctor & Gamble Co, Hershey Co, AT&T Inc and Kellogg Co suspended or did not renew sponsorship deals with USA Gymnastics. None of those companies responded to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Nassar’s sentencing did not end the crisis at USA Gymnastics.
Over the past two years, three CEOs have been forced out of the organisation after being criticized for the way they handled the scandal. Interim chief Mary Bono resigned just four days into the job last month.
“This has been such a colossal mess and it can’t seem to get a CEO correct,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, referring to USA Gymnastics. “There is intense pressure for it to do this right, get this out of the public eye by the time we get closer to the Olympics in 2020.”
Jonathan Little, an Indiana-based lawyer who has represented three gymnasts in lawsuits alleging sexual abuse as well as athletes from other Olympic sports in abuse cases, dismissed the USOC’s move as “window dressing.”
“The bottom line is this is just to make themselves look good in front of Congress,” he said, adding the organization fears Congress could replace it as it replaced the Amateur Athletic Union with the USOC in the 1970s.
In a post on Twitter on Monday, Democratic U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal said he hoped this “signals USOC will be more vigilant in protecting athletes & survivors when others fail them.”
Some of Nassar’s victims such as 2000 Olympic Bronze Medalist Jamie Dantzscher, who has filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics, want nothing less than a new governing body.
“It is time for this organization to be replaced,” she said in a statement on Monday.
Andrews, the independent sponsorship consultant said sponsors would eventually return to the sport, but only if USA Gymnastics is replaced with an effective body that has the trust of athletes and fans.
“That’s what everyone wants,” he said. “If they don’t do that, then it really will just be window dressing.”
Writing by Nick Carey; Editing by Bernadette Baum