4 Accusers Sue Taekwondo Champion Brothers For Alleged Sexual Abuse For nearly two decades, Steven and Jean Lopez were the undisputed champions of USA Taekwondo. Last month, Jean Lopez was banned from the sport for a pattern of sexual misconduct.
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4 Accusers Sue Taekwondo Champion Brothers For Alleged Sexual Abuse

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4 Accusers Sue Taekwondo Champion Brothers For Alleged Sexual Abuse

4 Accusers Sue Taekwondo Champion Brothers For Alleged Sexual Abuse

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

An update now on a widening sexual misconduct scandal in taekwondo. The former Olympic coach Jean Lopez and his gold medal-winning brother, Steven Lopez, have both been accused of sexual assault. Four women - former elite athletes - are now suing the brothers in Colorado federal court. Heidi Gilbert is one of the plaintiffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEIDI GILBERT: Jean and Steven have done horrible things to girls, and they're still able to compete and coach. How does that even make any sense to anybody?

SIMON: After an initial NPR report, Jean Lopez was banned from coaching. But as Alexandra Starr tells us, his brother - still a member of the national taekwondo team.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Nina Zampetti started training with Steven Lopez in the late 1990s, when she was 9 years old and he was 17. A few years later, Lopez surprised her with a gift.

NINA ZAMPETTI: He gave me the - a ring. And he told me that when I got older that we would be together.

STARR: Those gestures were punctuated with tough authoritarianism. Zampetti remembers on one occasion, when she didn't run to Lopez when he called for her, he ordered her to hold a headstand position.

ZAMPETTI: I felt like I was there forever. I felt like I did something so terribly wrong.

STARR: She wonders now if that experience conditioned her for an encounter with Lopez when she was 14 and he was 22.

ZAMPETTI: He asked me to give him oral sex. And I did.

STARR: She says the experience was deeply violating and inappropriate. Steven Lopez did not respond to requests for comment. Zampetti quit taekwondo a year after the incident. Last week, she filed a police report in Texas outlining these allegations.

In a separate case, four former taekwondo athletes filed a lawsuit last night, not just against the Lopezes, but also USA Taekwondo and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The lawsuit asserts that the failure to protect the athletes was tantamount to sex trafficking because some of the alleged abuse happened overseas.

Ronda Sweet served on the board of USA Taekwondo from 2006 to 2010. She says in the past, the organization's senior staff did not sufficiently investigate the Lopezes when allegations about them surfaced.

RONDA SWEET: They didn't want to know. They tried to cover up.

STARR: Sweet says there was a financial incentive not to act. The U.S. Olympic Committee, which oversees USA Taekwondo and 47 other sports governing bodies, followed a money-for-medals formula in allocating resources. Steven Lopez competed in five Olympic Games, winning three medals. That meant more money for the taekwondo governing body. Steve McNally became executive director of the organization last year.

STEVE MCNALLY: USA Taekwondo's now aiming to become an example of how to get this right.

STARR: It is far from the only Olympic sport grappling with the issue. Gymnastics, swimming and figure skating have all dealt with allegations of sexual abuse. The USOC could not be reached for comment. McNally of USA Taekwondo said he'd need to review the complaint before responding, but his organization will launch a media campaign next month about appropriate athlete-coach relationships.

MCNALLY: We have to be, maybe, more vigilant than some other sports that don't have that master-student relationship - that dominance built into the sport.

STARR: Investigating allegations of sexual misconduct now falls to the U.S. Center for SafeSport. That's the non-profit created last year to handle allegations of abuse across Olympic sports. The center banned Jean Lopez last month for sexual misconduct. While most investigations take two months on average, SafeSport first started looking into Steven Lopez 14 months ago. Staff there declined to talk about the status of the inquiry, which is their policy on all active cases. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr.

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