USA Women’s Olympic Gymnastics
The Pervasive, Indefensible Silence • By Diana Addison Lyle
Intertwined in the exemplary achievements of USA Women’s Gymnastics at the 2016 Rio Olympics, a pall of investigative work was fervently underway to finally break the silence on a culture where alleged sexual misconduct – exacted against some gymnasts as young as 13 years of age – was swept under the gymnastics mat for a long time – so as not to rock the boat of distinction.
In the meantime, just 5 months before the Olympics, IndyStar reporter, Marisa Kwiatkowski had learned of a lawsuit in Georgia filed by a former gymnast against her coach and USA Gymnastics – an unusual precedent. Documents buried in the court file revealed how USA Gymnastics had a long-standing policy of quieting allegations of child abuse – and failing to report them to the police or child welfare authorities.
The dust settled for a few months until August 4th, 2016. On this day, the first story in the investigation was published: ‘A blind eye to sex abuse: How USA Gymnastics failed to report cases.’ The central assertion was that USA Gymnastics did not alert the authorities amid many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches who were free to go on and abuse other children. Particularly damning were the statements under oath of two former USA Gymnastics officials. They said that the stance at USA Gymnastics was to routinely dismiss sexual abuse allegations as hearsay unless they specifically came directly from a victim or victim’s parent.
The next day, 4 U.S. Senators wrote a letter to USA Gymnastics President, Steve Penny, expressing their “deep concern” about the organization’s handling of sexual abuse allegations.
The IndyStar went more in-depth in their investigations and discovered that former coaches, who were not only suspected of abuse, but actually convicted of molesting children, were not placed on USA Gymnastics’ list of coaches banned from membership – even decades after their convictions.
On August 21, 2016, Kellogg’s, a major USA Gymnastics sponsor, said they were “deeply troubled” by IndyStar’s reporting. A company spokesperson stated, “We have expressed our concerns to USAG.”
On August 30, 2016, an unprecedented break in the investigation occurred when a Judge in Georgia ruled in favor of IndyStar being given permission to unseal sexual abuse complaint files that were kept on 54 coaches by USA Gymnastics from 1996 to 2006. IndyStar argued that the information was public record and imperative to the public’s understanding of how USA Gymnastics operated when it came to child safety. USA Gymnastics retaliated by stating that IndyStar was attempting to invade people’s privacy by going on a “witch hunt”.
Undeterred by the criticism, IndyStar published a story on September 12, 2016 about Rachael Denhollander, a former club level gymnast, who came forward and allowed her name to be published. She stated that years earlier, longtime USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, sexually abused her under the excuse that he was treating her medically. It turns out that USA Gymnastics had reported Nassar to the FBI in 2015 after “athletic concerns” surfaced. In their defense, they explained that the FBI had instructed them not to say anything publicly about the investigation. Nasser denied the allegations and had hurriedly and inconspicuously left USA Gymnastics while continuing to practice medically.
The spotlight fell on Dr. Nassar as more disturbing allegations surfaced. In September 2016, Nassar’s employer, Michigan State University, fired him siting concerns about his “compliance with certain employment requirements”. The vague compliance issue was loaded. Earlier in 2014, a complaint was registered about an alleged medical procedure that he had performed.
On September 25, 2016, two weeks after IndyStar had first published Denhollander’s story, 16 women filed criminal complaints about Nassar with law enforcement. On October 7, 2016, Michigan’s Attorney General took over the Nassar case – announcing that it would be the agency prosecuting if charges were filed. The temperature on the investigation had just gone up 50 degrees.
On October 28, 2016, a former elite gymnast filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics and some of its higher echelon officials. She stated that the National Team coordinators, Bela and Martha Karolyi, fostered a toxic, abusive environment that made it feasible for Dr. Nassar to sexually abuse underage gymnasts. The momentum was moving rapidly. By November 4, 2016, USA Gymnastics announced that it had hired former federal prosecutor, Deborah J. Daniels, to review the organization’s handling of sexual misconduct cases.
On November 22, 2016, Nassar was formally charged of sexual assault involving at least one victim who was younger than 13. The alleged abuse took place at Dr. Nassar’s home between 1996 and 2005.
Michigan’s Attorney General said on November 23, 2016 at a news conference that the child sex abuse charges against Nassar were the “tip of the iceberg”. The FBI had found 37,000 child porn images allegedly in Nassar’s possession.
By mid December 2016, IndyStar reported that there had been 368 allegations of sexual abuse against gymnasts in the previous 20 years. One particular Gymnastics coach, Ray Adams, abused his charges on an ongoing basis by moving from gym to gym. He ended up in jail.
2017 kicked off with another civil lawsuit filed by 18 women who name as defendants USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and a gym in Lansing, Michigan. The only person who made her name public in the lawsuit was Denhollander. The rest remained anonymous.
The Texas Rangers were deployed two months earlier to conduct further investigations at the Karolyi Ranch, where the gymnasts lived. According to an IndyStar report, it was soon discovered that contrary to USA Gymnastics’ assertions that they had reported Dr. Nassar immediately to law enforcement in 2015, the investigation uncovered a 5-week delay in reporting.
Previously, many gymnasts had been reluctant to speak up against Dr. Nassar because he was considered a “god” in the gym world, and they were frightened of ruining their chances at success since he was supposedly “the” doctor who attended to elite athletes. One of the techniques Dr. Nassar used was to routinely stick his finger in the girls’ vaginas during treatments for various injuries. Parents were asked to leave the room or Nassar used a sheet or stood in a certain position to block any view – according to police. He saw injured gymnasts at his Michigan State Office or his home in Holt.
On February 19, 2017, CBS’ 60 Minutes showed 3 Gymnasts from the National Team who spoke publicly for the first time about sexual abuse – under the guise of medical treatment – that they endured from Dr. Nassar. They forthrightly criticized USA Gymnastics for failing to protect their athletes.
By February 23, 2017, Michigan’s Attorney General announced 22 new sexual assault charges against Nassar, the first criminal charges that related to his role as a doctor. At a news conference, the Attorney General did not mince his words – calling Nassar “a monster”.
Dominique Moceanu, a 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist – called on Penny to resign – charging that he was at the forefront of the continual sweeping aside of “sexual abuse in gymnastics”.
By March 5, 2017, the sexual abuse complaint files that had hereto been kept under wraps by USA Gymnastics were formally released as public information by a Georgia court. The evidence showed that USA Gymnastics made a habit of referring to sexual abuse complaints as “hearsay” because they were not signed by a witness, victim or victim’s parent.
Two days later, on March 7, 2017, Senator Dianne Feinstein and 15 co-sponsors introduced a bill that would make it a federal crime for Olympic organizations not to immediately report allegations of child abuse to authorities.
The United States Olympic Committee Board of Directors called on Penny to resign on March 9, 2017. After a meeting of the organization’s Board of Directors, USA Gymnastics announced Penny’s resignation on March 16, 2017.
What makes the unfolding exposé on USA Gymnastics so egregious is this: young girls who make it onto the USA Gymnastics team are inordinately young; these are 13-year-old girls who are plucked out of their safe worlds of childhood and placed in one of the world’s most intense environments – the Karolyi Ranch. Gymnastics requires an indescribable level of discipline and dedication in order to reach Olympic levels of performance. Additionally, keeping their weight at zero fat percentages creates a whole new level of complexity. Girls often have a love/hate relationship with their burgeoning sexual maturity as they try to retain their androgynous bodies and curtail the onset of womanly curves. When a coach or a doctor violates a young girl’s trust by abusing their position and power – the damage is extensive on multiple levels.
Julianne McNamara, Olympic Gymnastics Gold Medalist from the 1984 Olympics describes the severity of the situation like this: “For so long there has been a culture of intimidation in USA Gymnastics. Girls who are sexually abused keep quiet because they’re afraid of potentially harming their careers by being labeled ‘troublemakers’. They don’t speak out for fear of being ostracized.”
“There have been brave women like Jennifer Sey, a national team member of USA Gymnastics who wrote a book called ‘Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics’ in which she discusses the immense pressure that these girls face. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an American swimmer who represented the U.S. at the 1984 Olympics and won 3 gold medals – has become a tireless advocate and activist for women in sport. The role she plays is critical. We have to step up and do a better job of protecting these vulnerable, talented athletes who are at the mercy of coaches and authorities. Oftentimes the leaders of these national teams will squash anything that they believe will affect the money. Sponsors typically go away when there are scandals inside these powerful organizations. It is up to the leadership to understand that no amount of monetary loss is worth failing to protect the athletes who are in their charge.”