For many Americans, the Winter Olympics mean three things: fierce competitors, stellar sportsmanship, and gold medal glory. But for some athletes who take part, as well as many of the fans, volunteers, and Olympic workers who support them, another challenge exists: sexual assault at the Olympic Games.
If we’ve learned anything from the #MeToo movement, it’s that sexual assault can happen anywhere. And organizers of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea want to do their part to make the Olympics a safe space for everyone. So this year, the Winter Olympics opened four sexual assault counseling centers in Olympic Park — and we can’t help but cheer.
Months since Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman revealed she was sexually abused by Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, the Olympic Committee appears to be taking sexual assault as seriously as it takes its sports. Following Nassar’s sentencing, the Olympic Committee forced the entire USA Gymnastics board to resign for enabling his decades-long abuse. Now, organizers of 2018’s Winter Games hope to change the way sexual assault is handled at the Games by providing support centers for victims of sexual violence.
Called Gender Equality Support Centers, these counseling offices provide an array of services for people who experience sexual assault at the Games. The centers’ staff speak multiple languages, offer in-person counseling services, and received training in medical treatment, legal issues, and therapy. The first of their kind, the centers provide anonymity, too, and a phone hotline to report sexual harassment and assault.
“I’ve been worrying about building a sexual violence counseling center at [the Olympics] because some people might not like it,” one of the Gender Equality Support Center’s counselors, Jeon Won Hee, told NBC News. “But this has a symbolic meaning.”
We don’t know for sure the exact number of sexual assaults that have occurred at the Olympic Games, but we know they do happen.
Two years ago, at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a waitress at an Olympic Village hotel accused an athlete from Namibia of forcibly trying to kiss her. That same year, a Moroccan boxer was accused of sexually harassing two cleaners who worked in the village. Sexual assault and harassment of an Olympic student volunteer and village staff were also reported at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. A report of sexual assault by an Olympic swimmer from Uganda surfaced, too, at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
The Winter Games’ Gender Equality Support Centers may not offer much by way of sexual assault prevention. But the support they provide for victims of sexual assault is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
“This is very meaningful,” said Jeon of the centers’ impact. “But the more important thing is knowing that sexual violence can occur anywhere, at any time.”