Gymnasts — and survivors — need more power over their own sport. It’s long overdue
That was the message sent earlier this week when the US Olympic Committee moved to decertify USA Gymnastics. It wasn’t a brave or bold step. It was long overdue.
The Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal and its fallout exposed USA Gymnastics as morally bankrupt. How else would you describe an environment that allowed a team doctor to abuse hundreds of athletes? How else would you describe an organization whose former president, Steve Penny, stands accused of tampering with evidence during the Nassar investigation?
Meanwhile, attempts to push forward from the scandal exposed USA Gymnastics as out of touch, insensitive, and grossly incompetent. How else would you describe the hiring of Mary Lee Tracy as head of the women’s elite development program? She publicly defended Nassar after he was charged with sexual abuse. (She was let go three days after her appointment.)
How else would you describe the hiring of interim CEO and president Mary Bono? She faced heavy criticism for anti-Colin Kaepernick tweets and for connections to a law firm that covered up the Nassar crimes. (She resigned under pressure after five days on the job.)
USA Gymnastics could do no right. So, like any bankrupt business rife with incompetence, it couldn’t keep going as currently constituted, not with the way it enabled sexual abuse, not with the sport’s biggest stars unrelenting in their criticism of the organization, not with a structure that placed optics before people.
But moving to shut down USA Gymnastics was the easy part. Now what? When USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland writes an open letter to the gymnastics community and says “you deserve better,” what does “better” really mean? What does a new business model look like for a national governing body? And, make no mistake, even though USA Gymnastics is a not-for-profit organization that wraps itself in the flag and celebrates leotard-wearing, ribbon-bedecked athletes, we’re talking about a business that needs to be held accountable.
Not only does USA Gymnastics support elite and Olympic competitors, it serves more than 150,000 athletes in 3,000 clubs across the country. Its reach extends to almost any place that offers gymnastics instruction and to approximately 4,000 annually sanctioned competitions and events.
USA Gymnastics describes its responsibilities as “promoting and developing gymnastics on the grassroots and national levels” and setting all the rules and policies that go along with that. That’s a lot of power invested in one group of people.
Let’s start there: the people in charge.
Reacting to news about the decertification proceedings, gold medalist Aly Raisman tweeted that it was “a significant step forward that is necessary for the overall health and well-being of the sport and its athletes.” The Needham gymnast went on to say, “There are so many amazing, talented, and kind-hearted people in this sport, and it’s time for them to lead us into the future!”
Being amazing and talented and kind-hearted are nice qualities to have in a leader. But in this situation, you know what’s better? Being a survivor.
The survivors of Nassar’s abuse and elite gymnasts, past and present, should be an integral part of any new governing body. Any meaningful restructuring should start with the athletes, and they should be placed in key decision-making positions, not stashed on some advisory board that’s more about optics than change.
The CEO/president position is open. Why not fill the position with a survivor or recently retired elite gymnast? Someone who’s been there as the US dominated international competitions while dysfunctional USA Gymnastics embarrassed itself at home. No doubt the PR boost would be big, but that’s the last reason for such a hiring.
Here are better reasons: The athletes have knowledge you can’t find elsewhere. They understand how gymnasts can be shamed, isolated, and abused emotionally, physically, and sexually in a system that encourages silence in exchange for the prospect of Olympic glory. They have been there. They know what it will take to regain the trust of the gymnastics community because any new governing body will have to regain their trust, too.
Also, if the Nassar scandal has shown us anything, it’s that female gymnasts are smart, savvy, strong, fierce, courageous, determined — and they won’t give up the fight for the future of their sport.
In a tweet that went viral, Simone Biles called out USA Gymnastics interim CEO and president Bono for her anti-Kaepernick/anti-Nike stance. Biles, the most decorated US gymnast in history and a Nike-sponsored athlete, wrote, “*mouth drop* don’t worry, it’s not like we need a smarter usa gymnastics president or any sponsors or anything.”
Whether the new governing body has a CEO, a president, a vice president, a 15-person board of directors, all or none of the above, it needs athletes such as Raisman and Biles sitting at the big table, criticizing leaders without fear of retaliation and insisting on transparency.
With the right people in leadership positions, cultural change should naturally follow. But the new governing body can’t wait on that change, especially when it comes to the way the US develops its top gymnasts. More power to the athletes in the boardroom should go hand in hand with more power outside of it.
For too long, a success-at-all-costs, ends-justify-the-means approach blinded USA Gymnastics and intimidated most of its elite competitors. Gold medals and world championships somehow excused training methods that effectively boiled down to “complain about anything and you put your Olympic dreams in jeopardy.” As a result, gymnasts stayed quiet amid sexual abuse, overuse injuries, dangerous diets, and weigh-ins.
That’s what happens when the power to make or break young gymnastic careers rests in the hands of a few powerful coaches and gives athletes no real agency. The Nassar scandal showed how that structure can have horrific consequences. And it’s another reason why any new governing body should be athlete-centric and why any elite training methods it employs should be devised with considerable athlete input.
The USOC needs to navigate a long process before USA Gymnastics is gone for good. But all this talk of giving gymnasts more say, more leadership roles, more power isn’t premature. Like the decertification process, it’s long overdue.