Leading Sports Journalist Chronicles US Speedskating's Turmoil

Mar 4, 2013

 (An earlier version of this story and the current audio version includes an incorrect characterization of Gabel's statement. It initially and incorrectly read "Gabel's admission to sexual misconduct." Mr. Gabel admitted to a "brief, inappropriate relationship" with a fellow teammate.)

Former president of US Speedskating Andy Gabel’s admission of an "inappropriate relationship" with a fellow teammate more than a decade ago is just the latest chapter in a years-long saga of problems swirling around the sport in this country.

Short-track races may be chaotic, but a leading sports journalist says the chaos is even greater in the governance of speedskating in this country.
Credit Kaz Photography/Getty Images

Skater Bridie Farrell came forward with the allegations on Lake Effect last week; Gabel has since admitted to and apologized for the "brief, inappropriate relationship” in other media outlets. He subsequently resigned from his positions with US Speedskating's Hall of Fame committee and as chairman of the International Skating Union’s short track technical committee.

Last year, a coach was accused by team members of physical and verbal abuse. Allegations also came to light about an athlete’s tampering with the skate of a competitor.

And at the same time, the organization faces significant financial challenges – you may remember the virtual bailout of the team by TV host Stephen Colbert ahead of the 2010 Winter Games.

All the while, skaters with Olympic ambitions continue to train – in places like Milwaukee, and Salt Lake City.

Philip Hersh has covered the turmoil surrounding speedskating more extensively than any other reporter. He covers Winter Olympic sports for the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Alongside Jared S. Hopkins, he recently co-authored a feature story that detailed many of the organization’s troubles.

“As we were doing the interviewing on this story, (US Speedskating) continually kept telling us, ‘Well, you know you're not going to make it easy on us to find sponsorship with a lot of negative stories,’” Hersh says. “And I said, ‘Well, the negative stories are there and you're just going to have to live with them.’”

Feuding factions

To start, speedskating in this country is a decentralized sport. While US Speedskating’s headquarters are in Salt Lake City, members of the national team train at various locations, including Milwaukee and even in Canada. At the same time, much of the power structure is linked to the Chicago area.

Hersh says the sport is governed by just a handful of almost “feudal” families in the Upper Midwest, in states like Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“It's just been this small group of families that's kind of passed down the management of this sport for a long time,” he says. “To say that it's inbred would be fairly accurate.”

Recently, the once-united short track team has recently split into three competing factions in Salt Lake City, even while two of them train on the same rink.

Affecting performance?

Hersh says the ongoing conflicts within the organization may be distracting the skaters – and affecting their performances.

“They have not won a single medal in any world cup so far,” he says. “After 5 World Cups, they've not won a single medal. Last year, at this point they had won 13.”

Financial woes

The federation’s money problems also don’t seem to be going away. With an annual budget of $4.3 million, the organization was $750,000 in the red at the end of last tax year, Hersh says – the result of some sponsorships not coming through. And all the recent negative press could be making one of their biggest sponsors, BMW, nervous.

“A conservative German car company like BMW undoubtedly is squirming a little bit when it keeps reading about all of this controversy, you know - skate tampering charges, and abuse charges being thrown at a coach, and 20-odd skaters signing a 50-page grievance against the federation,” Hersh says. “So when BMW goes to renew this deal in 2014, perhaps they'll say, ‘Maybe we ought to sponsor another winter federation instead.’”

Hersh says it’s possible that the USOC will be petitioned to decertify the federation, as what happened with the US Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. But he says it is unlikely that could happen in an Olympic year.

Here's a timeline of US Speedskating's recent troubles:

  • 2002 – The United States International Speedskating Association merges with the Amateur Skating Union, to become US Speedskating.
  • 2009 – One of US Speedskating’s biggest sponsors, the Dutch bank DSB Bank NV, goes bankrupt, only a few months before the Vancouver Olympics.
  • Jan. 2010 – TV host Stephen Colbert “adopts” the US Speedskating program and uses his program “The Colbert Report” to raise funds to bailout the team and support it through the end of the World Cup circuits. The team goes on to compete in Vancouver.
  • 2010 – After a turbulent period of constantly changing leadership, Mark Greenwald becomes the fourth executive director of US Speedskating in five years. He tries to make changes, but runs into an “entrenched board,” Hersh says.
  • Sept. 2012 - Fourteen speedskaters file a complaint with the US Olympic Committee against national team head coach Jae Su Chun, accusing him of physical and verbal abuse. An investigation did not find evidence of such abuse.
  • Oct. 2012 - Chun resigns for not reporting a skate-tampering incident of which he was aware.
  • Dec. 2012 – Speedskaters compete in the US Championships and begin the second half of World Cup season. They have yet to win a World Cup so far. Media reports indicate US Speedskating is $750,000 in debt.
  • March 2013 – Speedskater Bridie Farrell accuses four-time Olympian and former head of US Speedskating of sexual abuse more than a decade ago. Gabel admits to a “brief, inappropriate relationship,” and resigns from his positions with US Speedskating and the International Skating Union. USS says it will investigate the situation.