Analysis: Shaun White and the Olympics' ‘#MeToo' Moment

The resurfacing of sexual misconduct allegations against the gold medal-winning snowboarder puts the movement on the world stage.

Shaun White resorted to snowboarding imagery, invoking the "twists and turns" of life, when "Today" host Savannah Guthrie asked him Wednesday about a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him in 2016 and later settled out of court.

White, who won his third gold medal hours before the interview, might be an Olympian great on the slopes. But he plays a lousy game of verbal dodgeball.

His by-the-books apology for initially dismissing sexual misconduct allegations as "gossip" and his refusal to address the lawsuit head-on underscored what could become the biggest story of the Pyeongchang Games: #MeToo has arrived at the Olympics – taking the movement from Hollywood and Washington to the world stage.

The Olympic ideal of athletic purity talks a good game. But harsh reality often intrudes, from doping scandals to politically charged boycotts and bans to travesties like the serial sexual abuse of young athletes by former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

The Summer and Winter Games, while raising the spirits, also can serve as a uncomfortable, imperfect – and sometimes inevitable – forum to confront gravely serious issues.

Part of the planning in Pyeongchang included the opening of four "Gender Equality Support Centers" at Olympic sites to deal with sexual violence and related matters. Meanwhile, hockey star Slava Voynov, suspended indefinitely from the NHL over a domestic abuse conviction, is playing beside fellow Russian athletes.

Voynov doesn’t command the name recognition of White, who gained a Times Up/Me Too hashtag when the details of the lawsuit, settled last year, recently resurfaced on social media.

The 31-year-old American athlete told NBC’s Guthrie he was "truly sorry" for characterizing allegations by Lena Zawaideh, a former drummer in his band, Bad Things, as "gossip and stuff." She accused him of repeatedly sexually harassing her and withholding pay after firing her.

White unspooled a string of platitudes when Guthrie asked about the lawsuit: "It’s amazing how life works, and twists and turns and lessons learned, so you know every experience in my life, I feel like it’s taught me a lesson and I definitely feel like I’m a much more changed person than I was when I was younger and yeah, I’m proud of who I am today," he said. 

There’s certainly a change afoot, one that goes far beyond White’s self-assessed personal development. And the larger lesson is that the Olympics are now a prime #MeToo movement platform for the world to watch and judge.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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