Diminishing Silent Obedience and Rebuilding Gymnastics
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
"You used your position of power to manipulate and abuse…you knew I was powerless,” Jamie Dantzscher, a former gymnastics Olympian, said at the Larry Nassar sentencing. “Your days of manipulation are over.” Nearly five years have passed since the Indianapolis Star initiated the gymnastics revolution as journalists dug into the molestation accusations against Larry Nassar, former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics (“USAG”) team doctor. Following years of heavy FBI investigations and dozens of women coming forward to share their heartbreaking testimonies, Nassar plead guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with minors under the age of sixteen, and was also charged with having 37,000 images and videos of child pornography, resulting in a 175-year maximum prison sentence.
Though devastating and traumatic for many women, the Larry Nassar Scandal was just the tip of the iceberg to exposing the systematic cultural issues within elite gymnastics, including physical and psychological abuse. In the midst of Nassar’s trial, owners of the Gymnastics National Team Training Center in East Texas, Bela and Marta Karolyi, were brought in as co-defendants alongside Nassar for turning “a blind-eye to Nassar’s sexual abuse of children.” USAG, the governing body of gymnastics in the United States, was also named as a defendant for quietly retiring Nassar, tampering with evidence to protect Nassar and the Karolyis, attempting to cover up allegations brought forth by gymnasts, and even offering the victimized gymnasts’ settlements to stay silent. Investigations identified further corruptness within the organization, finding that USAG had hidden several claims dating back to 1997.
Silence out of fear is one of the biggest flaws within the elite gymnastics world. Prior to the scandal, elite gymnasts were sent at a young age to intense training facilities and taught silent obedience: an authoritarian, dehumanizing idea utilized by the Karolyis and other high-level coaches, such as John Geddert, the 2012 USA Olympic coach and club owner of Twistars Gymnastics, who was also named in the Nassar scandal. Coaches expected their gymnasts to obediently perform fearsome acrobatics under apprehension that if they errored, their coach would strike, scratch, slap, or throw things at them. During trainings, athletes could not complain about “minor” injuries like calloused and ripped palms, stress fractures, or excruciating back pain. Additionally, these coaches placed the gymnasts on rigid diets that were suspiciously close to starvation. If the gymnasts strayed off the diet or were found with sugary items, their coaches would punish them by verbally assaulting their weight and height, calling them fat in front of the team or, in some cases, physically harming them. Gymnasts at these high-level facilities were never in the position to question an authority figure, like Nassar, even when he would inappropriately penetrate their vaginas and rectums with his fingers while gymnasts laid on his massage table to receive treatment for their injuries. Even when the gymnasts reported their sexual abuse to certain members in USAG, their reports were never investigated. As a result, the moment they signed up to be a member of an elite program, they also, unbeknownst to them, signed up to lose their voices.
Although competitive gymnastics does require a level of persistence, obedience, and discipline, silence should never be part of a gymnast’s success. Coaches should demand respect but not by intimidating their athletes and putting them in danger of verbal or physical abuse. USAG should stand by their gymnasts and investigate any and all issues concerning alleged abuse, especially since the sport requires coaches to be in close physical contact with the athletes. For the past decade, gymnasts have needed psychological support and justice, yet the organization chose to stay silent on their biggest issues.
After years of being silenced, female gymnasts today have discovered the power of their voices. Olympians such as Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, and Simone Biles are using their platforms to raise awareness throughout the world on the horrific claims of abuse in gymnastics. This revolution has begun with the reformation of USAG. Recently, USAG began replacing its old board members with others who are dedicated to getting the sport in the right direction by taking responsibility of the federation’s long-time problems. The new executive members are creating and adjusting tactics, such as Safe Sport, the organization’s internal department for investigating abuse, to help minimize apprehension among athletes and encouraging them to report tyrannical training methods. While the sport’s culture cannot be healed overnight, the new officials of USAG have shown promising results in their willingness to stand up and prioritize safe elite gymnasts.
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