Fighting sex abuse in Olympic sports a difficult task

Eddie Pells
The Associated Press

Judges, event organizers and even some riders were caught off-guard earlier this year when a well-known equestrian judge got booted out of one of the year’s biggest horse shows.

Turns out, the judge’s name had been flagged by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the newly created office charged with overseeing sex-abuse cases in Olympic sports, because he had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sex assault five years earlier, in a case that had nothing to do with minors or anyone in his sport.

Had he been at the show in a Philadelphia suburb working as a trainer, however, his case might have never been discovered. While judges in the horse-show world receive maximum scrutiny in an effort to protect athletes from sex abuse, the federation that oversees the sport on the Olympic level does not apply the same standards to the vast majority of the sport’s trainers and coaches — the individuals who have the most day-to-day contact with the riders.

The case involving the judge, Robert Bielefeld, offers an eye-opening window into some of the difficulties and unintended consequences presented by the U.S. Olympic movement’s mission to combat sex-abuse within its ranks. It’s a mission that took on more urgency after a sex-abuse scandal rocked USA Swimming in 2010, then metastasized into headline news in the wake of physician Larry Nassar’s abuse of nearly 300 gymnasts, including some on the U.S. Olympic team.

The mission has also added immense pressure to administrators in dozens of niche sports, many of whom are experts in their field but don’t have the skills to craft sex-abuse-prevention policies that can have life-changing impact on victims and those who are accused.

“Upset. Disappointed,” Devon Horse Show manager David Distler said of Bielefeld’s reaction over his ouster from the renowned event over Memorial Day. “He thought it was done, finished, and it just kind of came up again out of nowhere.”

Bielefeld did not respond to several requests from The Associated Press, made via telephone, email and social media, to comment for this story.

According to court records, in April 2013, Bielefeld called a male worker at a hotel in Lexington, Virginia, into his room to fix his TV, pushed him onto the bed, exposed himself and began masturbating.

The worker escaped the room and told his manager, who urged him to call police. Within a few hours, Bielefeld was in jail. Shortly after that, he pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor assault and one count of attempted sexual battery. He received a six-month suspended jail sentence, 12 months of probation and was ordered to pay fines.

Once the probation was complete, the case was closed, and Bielefeld was free to resume his role as an equestrian judge — a job that didn’t put him in direct contact with riders or minors.

In a twist that illustrates the confusion surrounding the new policies, Bielefeld also works as a trainer out of a horse farm in Florida. But had he not also been a judge, this case — and his suspension — might not have resurfaced.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation, which oversees the sport at the Olympic level, requires about 2,400 people to undergo background checks, though the vast majority of those are on the administrative side of the sport. The list does not include trainers and coaches who work with horses and their riders because they are considered independent contractors. According to government statistics , there are approximately 2 million horse owners in the United States; 7 percent of those (around 140,000) are considered professional trainers, though that number is split among many segments, including racing and show horses.

“We’re encouraging (federations) that if they have something like that where the membership is limited, we would want them to broaden” the number of people subjected to background checks, said Dan Hill, the spokesman for the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

USEF is working on it. Spokesman Julian McPeak said the federation “does not have a program where it recognizes or certifies coaches or trainers,” but it is proposing changes that would bring them into the vetting process.

The most horrific sex-abuse cases in the sport’s history involved arguably the sport’s most renowned trainer.

In 2016, the name “Jimmy A. Williams” was stripped from USEF’s lifetime achievement trophy after dozens of allegations surfaced accusing the renowned trainer of multiple cases of sexual misconduct. Williams died in 1993 at age 76. Industry magazine The Chronicle of the Horse and the New York Times ran stories featuring dozens of interviews from Williams’ victims, who all described being kissed, groped and worse, often in the aisles between the barn stalls.

One of the victims, two-time Olympic silver medalist Anne Kursinski, did not respond to messages left by AP. But she is in a video on the USEF website supporting a change in the bylaws that would mandate trainers and coaches are included in the federation’s SafeSport program.

USEF’s decision to strip Williams’ name from its most prestigious award came more than two years after the federation bolstered its SafeSport policies in the wake of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s call for top-to-bottom overhauls of sex abuse policies for all sports organizations that fell under its umbrella.

That mandate exposed other issues.

Though the vast majority of athletes who make up the membership in Olympic sports organizations will never come close to making the Games, the USOC has oversight over all of them and decided all the federations must operate under essentially the same rules. Given the vast differences in the budgets and experience of the staffs of the 49 NGBs with ties to the Olympics, the implementation of those rules varied by sport.

The USOC’s ultimate goal was the 2017 opening of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which serves as a clearinghouse for athletes, coaches and parents to report suspected abuse. It also acts as an investigative entity that metes out suspensions and other punishment for those who break the rules, thus taking the decisions away from the sports organizations that sometimes lack institutional knowledge to deal with such issues – and often are rife with conflicts of interest.

But the Center for SafeSport finds itself policing much more than only those on the Olympic career path.

For instance, USEF oversees 29 breeds and disciplines in the horse-show world, only four of which are on the Olympic or Paralympic program. U.S. Sailing and the U.S. Tennis Association are other examples of NGBs with similar makeups – only a small portion of their activities are geared toward Olympic competition.

Meanwhile, the SafeSport center received 20 to 30 calls per month when it opened in March 2017, and though that number has grown to 20 to 30 calls per week in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the Nassar scandal, the center has only 17 full-time employees. Only four of those are full-time investigators, along with eight more investigators who work on a contract basis.

It helps explain how some cases slip through the cracks, while a case such as Bielefeld’s was fairly easy to identify despite being resolved for more than five years. He had a well-known criminal past and was part of a tight-knit sport with an active blogging community – ingredients that made him easy to find.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport was alerted to Bielefeld’s five-year-old case and placed him on interim suspension while it investigated. That word was passed onto USEF, which contacted the horse show, where organizers removed Bielefeld from his judging post.

His name was on the interim banned lists of both the SafeSport center and the USEF for around a month before it disappeared in mid-June. The USEF explained that an arbitrator agreed to remove Bielefeld’s name from the interim lists after a hearing, but the matter is still open pending a final determination by the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

Though officials at the SafeSport center would not discuss specific cases, they insisted there’s nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution.

“There’s an expectation from the public, from parents and from the sports community that athletes are going to be protected,” Hill said. “If there’s a conviction five years ago, and something were to happen again, people would be saying ‘How come someone with a conviction is allowed to be in this environment and have authority over individuals?’ And in a way, a judge does.’”