The eyes of the gymnastics world are turning to Boston, where the US championships begin Thursday at TD Garden. And while those eyes will be delighted by the sights of high-flying bar routines, elegant balance beam moves, daring vaults, and gravity-defying tumbling passes, the backdrop of the event exposes a more difficult story for the competition’s overseer, USA Gymnastics. Enveloped by scandal, its sport is under fire.
When years of systemic oversight problems culminated in the criminal sentencing of former national team doctor Larry Nassar as a serial sexual abuser, a long, heartbreaking shadow was cast over the sport, fomenting concern about the safety and well-being of the athletes involved. The Nassar case revealed a level of outrage that has demanded change. From the top of the US Olympic Committee through the national governing boards for each sport it oversees (of which USAG is one), work has begun to foster such change.
Not so long ago, USAG was threatened with decertification by the USOC. But under new leadership and guided by recommendations of an independent review, the path for change has been laid out. The work is ongoing, and questions remain: Will aggrieved parties believe enough is being done? Will recent events affect participation numbers in a traditionally popular sport? Can the US remain among the world’s best at the Olympic level while addressing issues at every level? And will changes within USAG culture answer questions of trust for parents and participants.
Take the example of former top-flight competitor Rachael Denhollander, who became the public face of the movement that unmasked Nassar and the abusive culture. Denhollander told the Globe she is unwilling to let her daughter participate in gymnastics. A decline in the sport’s participation rate in the US suggests she is not alone. USAG must hope that changes in practice will alter problems in perception.
“Our incredible athletes have always been, and will continue to be, a great source of national pride,” USAG said in statements provided to the Globe. “Many of our athletes who are competing today on the local, state, regional and national levels also dream of someday having the chance to represent the United States on the global stage.
“We want all parents, their children and the public to know that gymnastics is an incredible sport for young women and men, and one that is taught by individuals who have their athletes’ best interests and safety at heart.”
USAG in the crosshairs
The words still resonate and the images remain strong. It was late January 2018 when gymnast after gymnast stepped before a microphone in a Michigan courtroom to detail abuse at the hands of Nassar, the doctor who used his position to hide decades of predatory sexual molestation. In some ways, the ensuing sentencing of Nassar by outraged Judge Rosemarie Aquilina felt like the end of the story, punishing the villain.
Yet in many other ways, it represented a start. The women, known now as the army of survivors, ripped open a conversation long stuck in whispers and shame. Amid the cultural shifts of movements dubbed #metoo or #timesup, people started listening more, asking the difficult questions of how Nassar was able to go on for so long, how the failure to listen to gymnasts’ complaints let him thrive, how a culture steeped in obedience and insularity held back victims from speaking out.
While gymnastics hardly stood alone among sports criticized for silent abuses (swimming, figure skating, taekwondo), Nassar put USAG, and by extension the entire US Olympic structure, in the crosshairs.
Scott Blackmun, then the CEO of the USOC, deflected his organization’s responsibility, insisting there was no way the USOC could police the many national governing bodies under its auspices. Leading critics such as former Olympic swimmer, lawyer, and activist Nancy Hogshead-Makar made arguments against that USOC position, referencing the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act that they said gives the USOC both “authority and responsibility to ensure NGBs comply” with membership rules and that failure to do so “created the underlying conditions for sexual abuse to thrive by cutting athletes off from institutional support.”
Yet Blackmun took aim at USAG, writing in an open letter after Nassar’s sentencing (at which no USOC representative was present): “We have strongly considered decertifying USAG as a National Governing Body. But USA Gymnastics includes clubs and athletes who had no hand in this and who need to be supported. We believe it would hurt more than help the athletes and their sport. But we will pursue decertification if USA Gymnastics does not fully embrace the necessary changes in their governance structure along with other mandated changes under review right now.”
Decertification no longer seems likely, but the latest figures from the Sport and Fitness Industry Association Topline Participation report show gymnastics sustaining a 10.7 percent reduction in total participation from 2016 to 2017, substantially larger than the three-year average of 1.9 percent and the five-year average of 0.9 percent. A chilling effect? USAG is working to combat that, referencing a parent information portal at usagymparents.com.
“We are thankful that our parents continue to show their confidence in USA Gymnastics and its member clubs and professional members,” they wrote. “USA Gymnastics and its members and member clubs provide parents information about our commitment to safe sport, the importance of the Safe Sport Policy, and what it means to them and their athletes. This includes talking about the type of culture and environment that will keep their children safe and allow them to not only thrive in the sport, but also in their lives.”
For the former gymnast Denhollander, now a lawyer who was the first to put her name to the Indianapolis Star investigation that burst the Nassar dam, it will take more convincing.
“At this point I think [USAG] has missed the important and foundational thing, to acknowledge what went wrong,” she said. “They apologized that bad things happened, but they’ve never apologized for what led to those things.
“If you cannot identify what went wrong, then you’ve missed the first thing you have to do to make any real change. If you put all polices in place but not a heart change and an attitude change, the policies are going to have little to no effect.”
That sort of disillusionment can have a deep impact on the sport.
“My daughter wants to do gymnastics and we have said no at this point,” Denhollander said. “The people we have to entrust her to have not rectified the problems in their organization and the culture.
“It goes way beyond Larry. Larry was a symptom of the problem. How they treat sexual abuse in general, emotional and physical abuse, coaching techniques, the whole sport is abusive, by and large. It’s always been allowed because they got results.”
Now, critics want change. Blackmun has since resigned from his USOC position, bowing to public pressure, and the entire USAG board has been replaced. More than a year before that, USAG had begun implementing policy changes based on its own independent outside investigation. That 100-page report, issued by lawyer Deborah J. Daniels late in 2016, outlined many changes.
The USAG website includes a link to the highly critical document, as well as a pie chart detailing the status of every suggested change. The latest data show 47 percent of recommendations implemented, including all six suggestions for encouraging the reporting of suspected violations, including third-party reporting and consequences for failure to report.
“We have made a lot of progress in adapting our bylaws, policies and procedures to align with the Daniels recommendations and the new federal law,” USAG said. “Eighty-six percent of the recommendations made by Deborah Daniels in her report are implemented or in progress.”
It’s being overseen by new CEO Kerry Perry. A statement from USOC external affairs officer Patrick Sandusky pointed to those changes as progress.
“The United States Olympic Committee is deeply focused on critical initiatives and collaboration across the entire Olympic and Paralympic community to protect, support and empower America’s athletes,” Sandusky said. “Rebuilding USA Gymnastics is a key piece of our ongoing focus.’’
Though Perry was not made available for an interview, she wrote in a public letter posted June 4: “Since I joined USA Gymnastics six months ago, we have embarked on a mission to implement a culture that puts athletes first. I believe the best way to honor the incredibly brave women who spoke out about Larry Nassar and all of our athletes is to demonstrate every day our commitment to doing everything possible to prevent this from happening again.”
USAG is implementing SafeSport training for all gyms in its purview. Additionally, the Karolyi Ranch, once the site of the national training center under the direction of coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi, has been shuttered after reports of abuses while athletes were sequestered there. But the question of why now, and not sooner, remains. A contentious June 5 Senate hearing that involved USAG as well as Michigan State University, also under heavy criticism for keeping Nassar employed for decades despite complaints, tried to get that question answered.
US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that day, “The reason for these crimes is very simply that responsible officials put more medals over athletes’ safety. And so they looked the other way, they turned a blind eye, they ignored the truth that was right before their eyes.
“They are as much morally responsible as those criminals who committed this abuse. They’re going to have to look at the mirror and history will look at them for years to come.”
Joan Ryan, a former San Francisco-based sportswriter, asked about it as early as 1995, with the publication of her book “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.” Personal accounts of these issues from gymnasts (and figure skaters) weren’t simply ignored but fiercely contested by representatives from USAG. Ryan was vilified by authorities called out in her work. But now, more than two decades later, she has been hailed as a visionary. Her book is enjoying a revival, reprinted this July with a new forward by Jamie Dantzscher, a member of the bronze medal-winning American team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney who later revealed herself as a Nassar victim.
“The first reaction is fury, absolute fury, that at least as long ago as 23 years ago when the book came out — of course USAG knew what was going on before that — but now we have evidence, like a pin in the timeline, they knew this abusive culture was there and it was ripe for all kinds of abuse,” Ryan said in a phone interview.
“And instead of really recognizing it and making authentic steps to change the culture, they doubled down. They put the Karolyis in charge of the national team.
“Then this comes up, on this scale, it was beyond belief even for me that they knew how deep and corrosive and abnormal this culture was. I was totally shocked and apoplectic at all these girls. USAG owns it. They totally own it. Unfortunately it takes something like this, it takes an earthquake to totally rebuild, and they do have a totally new board, and that’s huge.”
These issues will take years to resolve and understand, and the conversation shows no sign of going away. The entertainment news site Deadline said there will be an HBO movie on the subject next year.
“Here is HBO’s logline,” the site wrote. “ ‘At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal’ masterfully weaves a tapestry of pathos, depicting a landscape in which women spend their youth seeking victory on a world stage, juxtaposed against a culture where abuse prevails and lives are damaged forever.”