A former Olympic diver from Germany is alleging that the German Swimming Association (DSV) knew about his longtime coach sexually abusing him and did nothing to stop it.
In a documentary aired Thursday by German public broadcaster ARD, two-time Olympic medalist Jan Hempel accused Werner Langer sexually abused him for 14 years beginning in 1982, when he was just 11 years old. Hempel said the abuse included Langer molesting him in the bathroom of the Barcelona diving stadium during the 1992 Games.
Hempel went on to win a silver medal in the 10-meter platform at the 1996 Olympics before bringing home a bronze at the 2000 Olympics in the 10-meter synchronized. Langer took his own life in 2001.
According to Hempel, DSV leadership allowed Langer to keep coaching despite being aware of his abusive behavior. Hempel said he informed German national team coach Ursula Klinger of the abuse a year after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where the sexual misconduct finally came to an end because Hempel defended himself for the first time.
“The federation [DSV] suggested to me that if I spread that around, it would put our sport in danger and then you can’t take part in your sport anymore,” Hempel told news agency DPA on Friday. “Of course, I was at a level where I had goals in mind and I wanted to reach them.”
Among those who allegedly ignored Hempel’s complaints is Lutz Buschkow, head coach of the national diving team for the past 20 years. Buschkow was temporarily relieved of his duties by the DSV following Thursday’s documentary “until final clarification of the facts.” He had traveled to Rome with the German team for the 2022 European Championships.
“People who remain silent are protecting institutions and therefore the perpetrators,” said Maximilian Klein, a representative for the athlete advocacy organization Athleten Deutschland.
“In part, they think their actions will avert further harm from those affected. Sometimes there are relationships of dependency or close networks of relationships that make those in the know feel powerless to come forward.”
In a statement released Thursday, the DSV said it was “deeply dismayed by the description of the terrible experiences of the victims of sexualized and sexual violence,” apologizing to the “victims for having to endure such traumatic experiences.” But in its defense, the DSV claimed that the first time the organization heard of Hempel’s allegations against Langer was only last week through a media inquiry.
“The DSV president at the time, Rüdiger Tretow, also assured that neither he nor the presidium had knowledge of such allegations,” the DSV said.
German diver Patrick Hausding criticized the DSV’s suspension of Buschkow, calling him a “small cog in the system.”
“You can’t put the blame on him — that’s not fair,” said Hausding, a four-time Olympian who retired from diving last May. “He had no decision-making power at all. He was a small cog in the system as a coach at that time.
“The incidents are terrible; Jan Hempel needs to be heard,” Hausding added. “But I don’t understand why he’s only making this public 25 years later.”
Hempel’s former partner in synchronized diving, Heiko Meyer, said that his teammate had previously confided in him, but that he hadn’t shared all the details.
“I knew that this happened,” Meyer said. “But to what extent – that also shocked me.”
The 50-minute film, “Abused — Sexualized Violence in German Swimming,” also explored other instances where sexual misconduct was overlooked, most of them involving victims who were minors at the time.
One diver reported having to sleep in Langer’s bed on a competition trip and being touched by him. Former competitive swimmer Till Michalak, then just 16 years old, told how his coach impersonated a young French swimmer and sent sexually inappropriate text messages to him. The prosecutor’s office dropped the case against the coach because, according to the documentary, there were no specific mentions about faking an identity in the paragraph on sexual abuse of adolescents.
Three former swimmers from Bavaria came forward with stories of their abuse starting at 10, 13, and 15 years old. The coach received a prison sentence of four years and a five-year ban from the profession. The documentary also revealed that Stefan Lurz, a former national open-water coach who was convicted of sexual assault, still has a presence around the Würzburg swimming pool and is even employed in the commercial department at SV Würzburg 05. Earlier this year, Lurz was sentenced to a six-month suspended prison sentence, with a local court mandating that he “must refrain from any professional or honorary activity in connection with the sport of swimming.”
The documentary painted a picture of systemic failures to protect young swimmers in Germany, amplifying calls for the country to establish an independent Center for Safe Sport. The plan was already proposed by Athleten Deutschland, and president Karla Borger said it’s “high time” that they put it in place.
“There is a need for a kind of separation of powers with independent structures,” Klein said.
“Alone and on its own, sport cannot succeed in an effective fight against violence and abuse. There are too many conflicts of interest, dependencies, closed structures, and family relationships in the system for that. Too often, action cannot or will not be taken, those affected are not believed. Tips go unheeded or consequences are inadequate.
“The culture of silence must be replaced by a culture of looking, recognizing and acting,” Klein continued. “It will take time before this is carried into the mainstream and therefore into the last gymnasium in the country. This requires long and painful development processes in (sports) clubs and associations.”
Hempel hopes that spreading his story might spark action on the issue and prevent future abuse.
“Something simply has to happen,” Hempel said.