Decorated Taekwondo Athlete Steven Lopez Temporarily Barred Amid Assault Claims

May 7, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 6:07 pm

Editor's note: This story includes a description of a sexual act.

Steven Lopez, the most decorated taekwondo athlete in history, has been temporarily barred from representing the United States on the international stage.

The 39-year-old has won three Olympic medals — including two golds — and five World Championships. At least five women have accused him and his brother Jean Lopez of sexual misconduct.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit tasked with investigating abuse across Olympic sports, has suspended him pending further investigation. Lopez was unavailable for comment.

In a statement to NPR, USA Taekwondo says it will "fully enforce this immediate suspension" and that it "fully supports the important work of the U.S. Center for SafeSport and respects its exclusive jurisdiction over sexual misconduct matters."

Lopez's brother Jean, a renowned coach, was permanently banned by the organization in April. He is appealing the decision.

The decisions by U.S. SafeSport affect only the brothers' eligibility to participate in the sport under the U.S. banner. They do not amount to a criminal indictment.

Steven Lopez's suspension comes just days after four former elite taekwondo athletes filed suit in the U.S. District Court for Colorado alleging that the Lopez brothers had sexually assaulted them. They are not the only people accusing the Lopezes of misconduct. As NPR reported last Friday, Nina Zampetti — who started training with Steven Lopez when she was 8 years old — says that when she was 14, and Lopez 22, he had her perform oral sex on him.

The four plaintiffs in the lawsuit are suing not just the Lopezes but also USA Taekwondo and the U.S. Olympic Committee. They allege that the organizations knew about the Lopezes' behavior and failed to protect them. Moreover, because some of the alleged assaults happened abroad, they argue the organizations are guilty of sex trafficking.

Women who had leveled allegations against Lopez were gratified by the news. "I'm glad for this," said Gabby Joslin, who trained with Steven and Jean Lopez and alleges she was assaulted by both men. "Steven needs to be away from potential victims." Joslin says in the lawsuit that she was first assaulted by Steven Lopez while being coached by him at a tournament in Germany.

Mandy Meloon, who originally made a formal complaint against the Lopezes to the USA Taekwondo in 2006 and is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she was pleased with the suspension but wishes it had come earlier. "Both of the brothers need to be charged with crimes," Meloon adds.

Ronda Sweet, who served on the board of USA Taekwondo from 2006-2010 and has long argued that the organization needs to take a tougher line on sexual assault, was ebullient about the decision. "This is a historic day," she says. "But it's just a start." She says other coaches need to be investigated as well.

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The most decorated taekwondo athlete in the world was suspended from the sport today. Steven Lopez was temporarily banned following mounting allegations of sexual assault. Joining me now to talk about this development is reporter Alexandra Starr, who has been covering the issue for NPR. Hey, Alexandra.


KELLY: So I want to warn listeners some of what you're about to tell us will be graphic. Let me start, though - for those who haven't heard of Steven Lopez, tell us a little bit more about who he is, what role he has played in taekwondo.

STARR: So he's been the sport's undisputed star for about two decades. He's won three Olympic medals. He's won five world championships. And he also made his family the so-called first family of taekwondo. His brother Jean was this sport's national coach in the U.S. for more than 15 years. His other brother and his sister also represented the United States in the 2008 Olympics, and they both won medals as well.

KELLY: And I should mention that one of those brothers, Jean Lopez, is also caught up in these allegations. Lay out for us exactly what Steven and Jean Lopez have been accused of.

STARR: So a few days ago, four former female athletes filed suit in Colorado federal court accusing the brothers of rape and physical assault. Both brothers have also been accused of allegedly drugging women before assaulting them. And last Friday, we reported on a woman who is not part of that lawsuit who began training with Steven Lopez when she was 8 years old. She says that when she was 14 and he was 22, he had her perform oral sex on him.

KELLY: What are the Lopez brothers saying? Have they commented?

STARR: So about a year ago, when reports first started appearing, they said that none of this was true. They have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

KELLY: OK. Now, one other player to bring in here, which is the U.S. Center for SafeSport. This is this relatively new nonprofit that was set up to investigate abuse. What role have they played?

STARR: So this is kind of the center's first big case. The center was created by the U.S. Olympic Committee in March of last year. It was launched in March of last year.

KELLY: All right.

STARR: And it was launched after the allegations about Larry Nassar came to light. Larry Nassar of course is the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics who molested over 250 athletes over the course of several decades. He is now serving a life sentence in prison. So the USOC created this organization to handle sexual assault investigating across Olympic sports. And they got this case against the Lopezes in March of 2017.

KELLY: And do we know, Alexandra, whether anybody in Olympic leadership knew of these allegations, knew what might have been happening with the Lopez brothers?

STARR: So we know that USA Taekwondo first got a formal complaint in 2006, but there were rumors circulating well before that. I've spoken with members of the board who are very critical of how the old leadership there handled issues of sexual assault. But they do think that the new leadership there is trying to turn things around.

KELLY: Thanks, Alexandra.

STARR: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That is reporter Alexandra Starr.

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