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Expectation of Success Jeopardizes Safety in Gymnastics World

Illustration by Maya San Diego

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) recently moved to strip USA Gymnastics (USAG) of its status as governing body of the sport. The intervention came as a result of the organization’s leadership problems, but the failure of USAG ultimately comes down to their willingness to sacrifice their athletes for world dominance in the sport.

An official procedure will now be followed to determine whether or not a different organization should replace USAG, which has failed to pick itself up after the Larry Nassar scandal broke a couple of years ago. In what was arguably the biggest sexual abuse scandal in the history of sports, Nassar, a widely acclaimed doctor for USAG and Michigan State University (MSU), sexually abused over 150 women over two decades under the guise of medical treatment. Finally, in early 2016, after one woman came forward with allegations, Nassar was quickly indicted, and later pled guilty to sexual assault and child pornography charges. In his sentencing hearing in early 2018, 156 women spoke about how Nassar’s abuse has affected them. Since then, many officials from USAG have been ousted or charged with crimes like evidence tampering. The organization has not been able to secure a solid leader since the scandal broke.

The women’s Olympic gymnastics team receives a certain level of celebrity status, appearing in television interviews, magazines, and promotional videos. The teams taken to the London and Rio Olympics received national stardom after winning gold in the team event. However, this perfectly crafted image of the sport was a stark contrast to the dark reality of what was going on behind the scenes. Nassar was the team doctor in London, and behind the glamour and stardom that was shown on television, was his abuse. Aly Raisman is a three-time Olympic gold medalist who competed in London and Rio. While the governing body of the sport was quick to capitalize on her success in the Olympics, they failed miserably at protecting her and countless others. She spoke at the sentencing hearing, where she revealed that Nassar had abused her in London. Speaking directly to Nassar she said, “Your abuse started 30 years ago … If over these many years, just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided. I and so many others would’ve never, ever met you.”

How was this abuse allowed to go on unnoticed for so long? The answer lies in the fact that athletes, parents, coaches, and organizations have one common, overriding goal in sports: winning. There are many reasons athletes didn’t report, but one important one was not wanting to rock the boat and compromise their success. Speaking out against a respected doctor could lead to retaliation, and many relied on Nassar to treat their injuries. Ultimately, many athletes and parents were able to get up the courage to say something. However, organizations like USAG and MSU found it easier to allow the abuse to continue rather than stand up for the athletes who brought them their success. According to The Washington Post, more than 10 women have said that between 1995 and 2016 they made complaints to parents, coaches, police, or other adults in charge. They were often told they misunderstood medical treatment and were discouraged from filing formal complaints. In 2015, when USAG leadership finally began an internal investigation, and ultimately fired Nassar, they did not inform MSU, where he continued to work there and abuse athletes. USAG wanted success in gymnastics, and they were willing to give up the safety of their athletes to protect their reputation. The culture of highly competitive athletics is what allows abuse to be so widespread and continuous. It’s dangerous for athletes, parents, and teams to put winning above all else.