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News > Sport

4 women Sue USOC USA Taekwondo Over Sex Trafficking

  • Jean Lopez has coached USA Taekwondo in the past four Olympics.

    Jean Lopez has coached USA Taekwondo in the past four Olympics. | Photo: Reuters

Published 7 May 2018

Mandy Meloon, once dismissed as a liar, is now seen by some in the sport as a trailblazer and a case study in the potential consequences of ignoring those who come forward with complaints of sexual abuse.

Four women athletes accuse Friday the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Taekwondo of rapes and sex trafficking during two decades in a federal lawsuit.

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Heidi Gilbert, Mandy Meloon, Amber Means and Gaby Joslin went to court in Colorado over what they called "two decades of sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking of Team USA's Olympic taekwondo athletes by the entities, officials, coaches and mentors who were entrusted to protect them."

The lawsuit cites former U.S. Olympic taekwondo coach Jean Lopez and his brother Steven, a two-time Olympic champion in the sport.

"From at least 2007 onward, the USOC and USA TKD have knowingly protected, empowered and clothed Jean Lopez with the authority, legitimacy and trustworthiness of being the official coach of Team USA's taekwondo team and his brother Steven with being the superstar of USA Taekwondo," the suit said. "In doing so, they have exposed hundreds of young female athletes to two adult sexual predators, the coach of USA Taekwondo and his own brother."

The suit claims "in their shared lust for 'medals and money,' the USOC and USA TKD have sheltered Steven Lopez from prosecution because he delivers commercial riches."

Gilbert said Jean had sexually assaulted her after events in Ecuador in 2002 and Germany in 2003.

The suit says women who wanted onto the U.S. taekwondo team "had no choice but to submit to the Lopez brothers' sexual demands. If they refused to do so, they were benched, suspended or kicked off Team USA by the Lopez brothers, the USOC and USA TKD."

Meloon, a two-time world champion, filed a written complaint against Jean 11 years ago, saying the abuse began at age 13, when Lopez frequently engaged her in uncomfortable discussions about sex as soon she started training with him at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. In 1997, when she was 16, Lopez, then in his early 20s, drunkenly crawled into bed with her and engaged in inappropriate contact during a trip to Cairo, she said. She won a World Cup silver medal on that trip.

However, a few months later, USA Taekwondo officials suspended Meloon ahead of the Olympic Games in Beijing, saying Meloon had “wrongfully accused” coaches of soliciting her for sex. Lopez and his siblings were the sport’s most prominent family, bringing home Olympic gold medals. “These defamatory utterances are untrue and damaging to the morale of the national team and USAT staff and coaches,” their report said. They also said Meloon smoking and drinking alcohol excessively and was refusing to train.

Her athletic career abruptly over, Meloon struggled alone, sometimes homeless or in psychiatric wards, sometimes working in construction or restaurants, having forsaken even a high-school diploma during her rise as a teenage athlete. She struggled for years with money and mental health issues. In 2016, she began serving a two-year prison sentence after assaulting an off-duty Texas sheriff’s deputy who was trying to remove her from a bar after an employee asked her to leave.

Toward the end of her prison sentence, Meloon saw the first sign of shifting public sentiment on sexual assault. When she was released in January, she started hearing from former teammates and coaches about #MeToo. “I come out of prison and people are calling me and are like, ‘We believe you, we support you! Yay! #MeToo!’” Meloon, who now lives in Austin, Texas, said in a telephone interview to Reuters. “I’m like: Where were y’all 11 years ago?”

An investigator from the U.S. Center for SafeSport, set up last year to investigate sexual misconduct in Olympic sports, met her in August to review her complaint.

In April, a report from the new investigatory body found “a preponderance of the evidence” showing Meloon, along with fellow athletes Heidi Gilbert and Kay Poe, had told the truth in their years-old accusations against Lopez. Lopez was permanently banned from the sport, a decision he is appealing. A day after reading the report, Meloon said she was still processing it. Despite her worries that Lopez could yet get the ban overturned, she acknowledged: “It’s more than I could ever hope for.”

In its confidential report issued in April, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, SafeSport concluded that Lopez for decades was “abusing his power to groom, manipulate and, ultimately, sexually abuse younger female athletes.” SafeSport declared Lopez “permanently ineligible” to participate in sport organized by the U.S. Olympic Committee and its affiliates, including USA Taekwondo.

Meanwhile, USA Taekwondo said in a statement to the newspapers that it has not had time to review the details of the lawsuit and so "as this is an in-process legal matter it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time."

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