Three years ago, more than 150 women testified in court that Larry Nassar, a former United States gymnast and sports medicine doctor at Michigan State University, sexually abused them under the guise of medical care.
Since then, he has been sentenced to more than a century in prison, USA Gymnastics has filed for bankruptcy, and a gymnast abuse reckoning hit the world.
But that doesn’t mean that the problems in gymnastics are gone.
After Nassar’s arrest and trial, many gymnasts, current and former, realized that his actions were part of something bigger: a widespread culture of physical and emotional abuse in sports that led young athletes to “accept any treatment.” in the words of Jennifer Sey, a former elite gymnast and producer of the 2020 documentary Athlet A.
Gymnasts are “constantly belittled and abused” by coaches, Sey told Vox. “They are stretched to the point of injury, they are refused food, they are ashamed of themselves. The child is really just down. “
The Safe Sport Authorization Act, passed in 2018, has helped authorize a central body to investigate complaints across all Olympic sports. And the personal stories of gymnasts – extensively in court, in documentaries such as Athlet A and in the most recent social media campaign #GymnastAlliance – have also helped to raise awareness. But as athletes from around the world prepare to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, many say American gymnastics has a long way to go before athletes are truly safe. A sport’s culture “doesn’t change instantly when laws change,” said Sey. “And this culture is so deeply anchored that it is almost invisible.”
The gymnastics culture has long supported and perpetuated the abuse
The issue of sexual abuse in gymnastics first attracted widespread public attention in 2016 when the Indianapolis Star reported that two former gymnasts spoke about the abuses committed by Nassar. One of them, Rachael Denhollander, told the newspaper that Nassar had abused her repeatedly over five treatments, allegedly for lower back pain.
“I was ashamed,” she told the star. “I was very embarrassed. And I was very confused trying to reconcile what was happening with who he was supposed to be. He’s that famous doctor. My friends trust him. These other gymnasts trust him. How did he get that position in the medical profession, how did he get that kind of notoriety and stature when he’s like that? “
As part of the Star Investigations, more and more gymnasts came forward to report abuse and assault by Nassar, and he was eventually arrested, tried, and convicted after pleading guilty to sexually abusing seven young athletes. His 2018 conviction hearing, with dozens of women making ardent statements about the harms of his abuse, marked a turning point for the sport.
But Nassar is only one person. He could not have abused young people for so long, many said, had sports authorities, including USA Gymnastics, taken their duty to protect athletes more seriously. In fact, even before the allegations against Nassar became public, USA Gymnastics was accused of mishandling or dismissing abuse reports, including a warning about a Georgia coach who, according to the Star, abused Turner for seven years.
“You had a job,” said four-time gold medalist Simone Biles in 2019 of USA Gymnastics. “You literally had a job and couldn’t protect us.”
Founded in 1963, USA Gymnastics has grown to include over 200,000 athletes and clubs. Before Nassar’s abuse came to light, the organization was one of the most high-profile governing bodies of any Olympic sport, boasting sponsorship deals with big companies like AT&T and Hershey’s, according to the Star. But as early as the 1990s, the group received reports of sexual abuse to which they did not respond, the newspaper reported.
Aside from failing to investigate reports, many gymnasts have also said that the culture of gymnastics perpetuates physical and emotional abuse. Athletes have described being beaten by coaches, injured, pushed to exercise, and repeatedly insulted, verbally abused and ridiculed. And many gymnasts have said that in a sport where being small and low in body fat is important, they have been exposed to constant body embarrassment.
Throughout sport, there has long been “the acceptance that this cruelty is what it takes to make champions,” said Sey. “It has not been identified as abusive for many years.”
But physical and emotional abuse by coaches has taken its toll, and has even led some gymnasts to contemplate suicide. It has also caused athletes to speak out less when they are sexually abused by Nassar or others.
“If you have starved yourself and are really hungry and you are 18 and have not yet menstruated because your body fat is so low but you are told every day that you are a fat pig, you don’t trust your own perception of the world” said Sey. And then, if you are abused by a reputable doctor, you are more likely to “accept that treatment, even if you think something is wrong or wrong”.
In addition, coach Nassar’s cruel treatment enabled Nassar to ingratiate himself with the athletes by promising them kindness and empathy, some say.
“He comforted me and rubbed my leg and said everything would be fine,” Morgan White, a former gymnast, told the New York Times. “He was the good one at a cruel people’s sport. He had already attacked me then. “
The sport is changing, but progress is slow
Since athletes started speaking out about Nassar, lawmakers and sports authorities have launched some reforms to prevent abuse and hold perpetrators accountable. For example, the Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2018 gave a central governance body – the US Center for SafeSport – the authority to investigate reports of abuse in all sports, including USA Gymnastics.
The idea was to stop having U.S. gymnastics and other sports organizations self-policing – and possibly looking the other way to protect coaches who win medals – instead, create an independent group to do the job. SafeSport has the power to ban coaches and others from exercising and had 149 life bans between 2017 and September 2018, according to the New York Times. The organization also maintains a database of people it has banned or suspended, as well as links to lists of people banned by individual sports associations such as USA Gymnastics.
But SafeSport isn’t perfect. The center doesn’t have the same resources or legal powers as a prosecutor, so it doesn’t have as much power to gather evidence, Jodi Balsam, a Brooklyn Law School professor who studies sports law, told Vox. And some say the research has been lengthy or ineffective. A report on SafeSport published in December by the Government Accountability Office found that most of the 3,909 cases handled between February 2018 and June 2020 were closed due to lack of jurisdiction, insufficient evidence or other administrative reasons, rather than a formal determination. “You can make the best protocols, the best guidelines, the best rules and standards, but they actually have to be implemented and conducted in a way that serves the mission,” said Balsam.
Some have asked for more resources to help SafeSport do its job better. But beyond that, some proponents say, “There will never be adequate protection for these vulnerable athletes until the athletes themselves are empowered in some way,” Balsam said. Otherwise, they have no way of reducing abusive behavior, as their entire career depends on “showing total obedience to these coaches”.
One way to regain some power would be through the organizing that Olympic athletes have studied over the past few years. But that remains a distant goal for the time being. In the meantime, athletes and their advocates are working to change the gymnastics culture in such a way that improper coaching is no longer tolerated.
For some, it starts with expressing yourself. Sey, who experienced an abusive coaching culture as an elite gymnast in the 1980s, helped produce Athlete A. “I was really interested in not just exposing what happened in the Nassar case, but the greater culture of abuse to bring in connection, ”said Sey.
Last year the film helped inspire a wave of gymnasts around the world who post their experiences on Instagram using the hashtag #GymnastAlliance.
In the wake of the hashtag, according to the New York Times, investigations or investigations into abuse were initiated in Great Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and Belgium. “We have a great opportunity to change the sport because so many of us are finally being heard,” Lindsay Mason, a former Olympic gymnast from the UK, told the newspaper.
The Nassar case also inspired grassroots advocacy groups in the United States, including the Army of Survivors, launched in 2018 by survivors of Nassar’s abuse. The group has pushed for reforms in all sports and at all levels, not just the elites, including the need for background checks for coaches and oversight so that coaches and doctors are not alone with young athletes. They also encourage gyms and clubs to promote children’s athletes’ rights, including the right to say “no” in undesirable situations and the right to speak up when something doesn’t feel right.
The goal is “to make athletes feel like they can raise their voices, that they have rights, and that they need to be centered first and foremost,” Army of Survivors executive director Julie Ann Rivers-Cochran told Vox .
Advocacy of athletes is helping to change the culture of sport, some say. The Nassar case, as well as the testimony of athletes in Athlete A or #GymnastAlliance, has caused some coaches to rethink their own approach to the sport, Sey said. But still: “We are far from where we need to be.”
In fact, Biles, one of the high profile athletes at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, said earlier this year that if she had a daughter, she wouldn’t allow her to train with USA Gymnastics.
“I am not feeling well enough because they have not taken responsibility for their actions and deeds,” she said in an interview in February. “And they didn’t assure us that something like this would never happen again.”
To really ensure this, proponents and experts agree that gymnastics needs to move from a win-for-all mentality to one that prioritizes the needs of the young competitors who make up the sport. “The well-being of the athletes must be more in the foreground,” said Balsam, “even if it costs money and medals.”