Saturday, 27 January 2018

How US Doctor, Larry Nassar Sexually abused Simone Biles and other gymnasts for Decades

The Larry Nassar scandal is the biggest sexual abuse scandal in sports history.

 Nassar’s victims, who include some of the most famous female athletes around today, including Simone Biles and McKayla Maroney, outnumber the alleged victims of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby combined. The abuse was global: he abused girls in London at the 2012 Olympics; at the Károlyi Ranch, USA Gymnastics’ training centre in Texas; at gymnastics meets in Rotterdam.

Over the course of the week-long sentence hearing, more than 150 women made impact statements in which they described lives crushed by trauma and shame. Shy little girls who briefly found self-confidence through sport became deeply self-loathing teenagers and adults because the man who was supposed to help them do the sport they loved instead molested them, over and over again.

The most obvious word this case sparks is “how”: how could this have ever been allowed to happen? How could USA Gymnastics have required hundreds of girls under its care to submit to mandatory treatment from a man who would give them “pelvic exams” in their hotel or dorm beds at night, wholly unsupervised? And how could the complaints about him have been dismissed for so long, as detailed by the gold medallist Aly Raisman in her unforgettably blistering testimony? “It’s easy to put out statements talking about how athlete care is the highest priority. But [USA Gymnastics] has been saying that for years, and all the while, this nightmare was happening,” Raisman said in court.

“There is no other sport in which this could have happened but gymnastics,” says Joan Ryan, whose 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, about the physical and psychological toll gymnastics takes on girls and young women, is still regarded as one of the seminal books about the sport. “These girls are groomed from an incredibly young age to deny their own experience. Your knee hurts? You’re being lazy. You’re hungry? No, you’re fat and greedy. They are trained to doubt their own feelings, and that’s why this could happen to over 150 of them.”

Jennifer Sey was the 1986 US national champion and a seven-times national gymnastics team member. She says she was very aware of sexual abuse in the sport when she was training in the 80s: “There were two men who worked in my gym, both coaches, who were abusers. One was a girls’ coach, who was especially emotionally abusive and a sexual abuser, too. One of my teammates, now an adult, told me how he abused her for several years. My brother’s coach in the same gym was a known paedophile. It was openly discussed among the boys. No one did anything. The abuser was a revered coach and no one wanted to tarnish his reputation. Plus there was always concern that if you rocked the boat you would be ostracised, you wouldn’t be chosen for the team, you would be blackballed in the sport. Which was true, as we have heard from athletes in the Nassar case.”

Aside from the number of girls and women abused, the most shocking revelation about this case is how the abuse was covered up, and for how long. Complaints were made to Michigan State University about Nassar as far back as 1998, but no one did anything. An investigation conducted by the Indy Star during Nassar’s trial revealed a long pattern in USA Gymnastics of hushing up or downplaying complaints about sexual abuse in the sport. Repeatedly, coaches and officials were protected at the expense of the athletes.

“Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee didn’t want to scare off sponsors and they didn’t want to risk the piles of Olympic medals. So they covered it up. And at a certain point they were so far in on the cover up that they were implicated. So they dug in deeper to protect themselves from criminal and civil liability,” says Sey.

Nassar’s trial has shone a light on a mentality in the sports world that values performance over protection, medals over morals, and this has long been a concern about the gymnastics world. Indeed, the unspoken assumption that this is how gymnastics works might explain why, until the final week, there was so little media interest in the Nassar case compared to previous sexual abuse scandals in other parts of the sports world.

“This administration has never had a desire to win at any cost and we expect the athletes’ welfare to be given the highest priority,” says Claire Jackson from British Gymnastics when asked about the Nassar case.

Ryan wrote about the notoriously brutal regime at the Károlyi Ranch, run by Béla and Márta Károlyi and where Nassar worked, detailing how girls were so deprived of food and water they would beg their male teammates to smuggle them snacks. Yet as long as the Károlyis brought in medals the media loved them. When the gymnast Jamie Dantzscher spoke out about the Károlyis in 2000, one US columnist sneered that Dantzscher’s “finger-pointing trill was a far more graceless performance than our fourth-place finish”.

Almost two decades later, Dantzscher was one of the women who testified about the abuse she had suffered from Nassar, and the Károlyis are named in a handful of lawsuits tying them to Nassar. USA Gymnastics has announced it will no longer use the Károlyis’ ranch.

“When I wrote about the ranch in 1995 there was all this backlash from coaches saying: ‘Oh, these girls are just annoyed they never won. It’s sour grapes.’ It’s so sad that it ended up being the girls who brought Nassar to justice – they knew the adults around them wouldn’t help them,” says Ryan.

Since the start of Nassar’s trial, the president of Michigan State University has resigned under pressure and multiple officials have resigned from USA Gymnastics. But given that no one from the US Olympic Committee even bothered to come to Nassar’s trial many are questioning how committed officials truly are to changing the culture.

“We need change to come from lawmakers, not organisations. There needs to be government oversight with hard and fast rules, because these girls are children, and if they win fewer medals, so be it,” says Ryan.

Champion Women, an advocacy group for girls and women in sport, chaired by the former Olympic gold medallist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, has sent a letter to Congress, signed by hundreds of elite athletes, including Martina Navratilova, demanding that laws be passed that protect young athletes from predators.

“Research shows that the more elite the athlete, the more likely they are to be sexually abused by someone within their own entourage. The legislation is necessary to fill gaps in legal protections for athletes not participating in school-sponsored sports,” the letter reads.

But those with long experience in the sport aren’t holding their breath. Would Sey allow her daughter to go into professional sports?

“No,” she replies. “I think childhood is best spent being a child.”

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