US & World

Decorated Taekwondo Athlete Steven Lopez Temporarily Barred Amid Assault Claims

Steven Lopez represents the United States at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Steven Lopez represents the United States at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

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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